A new Louisiana law now requires an extra test for newborns before they leave the hospital. Pulse oximetry screenings provide a critical tool for doctors to diagnose potentially life-threatening heart conditions in newborns.
Two dollars and less than two minutes: that is the average cost and time frame for a pulse oximetry test, now a required step in newborn screenings in Louisiana. "It's going to be part of the standard newborn checklist that we use on all babies before they go home in 24 hours," said Dr. Gisele McKinney, an ob-gyn at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital for Women.
Pulse ox testing is nothing new, but it is the first time the state is mandating that every newborn have it done. The hope is to catch underlying heart defects at birth. "You look at causes for why the baby would not be profusing or holding his oxygen levels appropriately," said Dr. McKinney.
The pulse ox test is simple, it does not hurt and just involves putting a clamp around the infant's finger, wrist or foot. As it rests there, the numbers for the baby's oxygen levels and heart rate will pop up on a monitor. "There are no side effects, it's completely transdermal, it's non-invasive," says Dr. McKinney, "and only takes about as long as it takes to put a Band-Aid on."
If the oxygen level is below 95 percent, it could be a sign that oxygen is not being pushed through the body correctly, which means a heart problem could be to blame. "It's the best tool we have that's less invasive and cost-effective to try to catch these other cases that we're missing," said Dr. McKinney.
Doctors say when a baby is born with a heart defect, it is not always physically obvious. That has led to one in four babies going home with an undetected problem. "They would appear normal and then they decompensate when they go home," said Dr. McKinney.
Pulse ox testing closes that gap to as little as four percent, meaning 96 percent of newborns will have their heart defects caught at the hospital before a life-threatening situation at home.
The pulse ox test is not perfect. It does not catch a heart problem every time there is one. Parents can look for these signs in their newborn for possible heart problems:
*breathing too fast
While the Louisiana law is in effect, it will take some time for all hospitals in the state to get the pulse oximetry monitors on line. If you have a baby and do not know if he or she underwent a pulse ox test, ask for one to be done. Chances are the hospital has a monitor available, but simply has not yet instituted the new policy.
The pulse ox bill was sponsored by Rep. Ledricka Thierry (D-Opelousas) and backed by the American Heart Association.