New law requires screening for Tennessee newborns

11:22 PM, Dec 28, 2012   |    comments
  • Newborns will be screened with a pulse oximeter.
  • Newborns will be screened with a pulse oximeter.
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When the calendar turns to 2013 Tuesday, several new state laws will go into effect. One of those was designed to help doctors and their patients catch heart disease in newborn babies.

Starting Tuesday, all newborns will be screened for congential heart defects using a device called a pulse oximeter. The non-invasive test measures oxygen levels in the blood, which doctors say can be an early indicator for trouble.

"It is the percentage of the red cells in the body that are saturated with oxygen," said Dr. Tom Meadows, who works in the neonatal unit of UT Medical Center. The hospital already uses pulse oximeter screenings on babies admitted to that department, but soon healthy babies will also be tested.

The device looks similar to a band-aid, and wraps around a baby's wrist or ankle.

"It's sort of an indirect measure, as light feeds through it measures absorbance and compares it to a set algorithm that's determined from testing millions of people," Meadows said.

Meadows says about 20-50 percent of the time, an abnormal test could be sign of heart disease, but he says that's not always the case.

"If level is abnormal, it is really important for people to know, it doesn't mean that the baby has heart disease," Dr. Meadows said, "And it will lead to more testing and maybe just a simple heart ultrasound by one of our cardiologists."

Doctors use a number of other tests to monitor infant heart health.

"There's lots of other signs of heart disease we watch for, too. These babies won't gain weight. They won't necessarily feed well. If a baby sweats when he or she eats that's a big red flag."

UT Medical Center joins several hospitals around the state that will implement the change at the start of the new year. Meadows expects a smooth transition.

"In theory, it is not going to be a huge change. A little bit of equipment acquisition, and we'll need a few more pulse oxymeters, and that's already been arranged. So I don't expect it will be a huge problem."

The Tennessean reports this new law mandating the test is based on recommendations from federal health officials and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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