A beautiful newborn baby — by all appearances perfectly healthy — goes home from the hospital in the care of delighted parents. What they don’t know is that within that tiny, beating heart lies an undiagnosed defect that can surface tragically, days or weeks later, without warning.
Beginning Sept. 1, hospitals were required to begin screening newborns for these life-threatening heart problems before they’re discharged, so they can be treated in time. A new state law, H.B. 740, adds the screening to the list of conditions babies must be tested for.
“These cases are heartbreaking because the babies often leave the hospital looking completely healthy, and by the time the problem is apparent it’s sometimes too late,” said Dr. Alice Gong, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center and a neonatologist at University Health System. “But if the heart condition is caught early, before they go home, it can often be corrected through surgery.”
A simple, noninvasive test called pulse oximetry, performed 24 hours after birth, measures the level of oxygen in the baby’s blood using a sensor that wraps around the baby’s hand and foot. A low level of oxygen could signal critical congenital heart disease, or CCHD — a group of conditions that together make up the leading cause of death in infants younger than 1 year old.
About 7,200 infants a year in the United States are born with CCHD. And while most are diagnosed soon after birth, about 300 healthy looking babies go home undiagnosed.
Gong, with colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, formed the Texas Pulse Oximetry Project, or TxPOP. The comprehensive program trains health providers using guidelines developed through the consensus of expert groups. For the past several months they’ve been working with seven hospitals in the Houston area and six in South Texas to prepare for the statewide roll-out, screening about 10,000 newborns.
During that time, the first baby with CCHD was identified through pulse oximetry at University Hospital. The child successfully underwent surgery in December.