Grant improves outlook for newborn cardiac screenings

Funds will support new testing; doctors hope to eliminate later health risks

The University Medical Center is looking into providing a new screening service that would detect heart disease in newborn babies. A $900,000 grant recently awarded to the Virginia Department of Health will be used to explore the viability of instituting this procedure through data collection and training.

The procedure, known as pulse oximetry, or pulse-ox for short, uses existing technology to monitor small changes in blood oxygen levels that might indicate a congenital heart defect.

“The technology is not new at all … it’s a very simple way of measuring oxygen levels in the blood,” said Paul Mathern, professor of pediatrics. “It just turns out that most Critical Congenital Heart Defects have at least very mild decreases in blood oxygen levels. I mean, the babies look normal, but this test just allows us to pick up something that is not perceptible by the naked eye.”

About 40,000 babies are born each year with some form of Congenital Heart Disease and between 8,000 and 10,000 are born with Critical Congenital Heart Disease, according to a presentation provided by Matherne. Of those with CCHD, 2-4 percent are released undiagnosed, but the pulse-ox technology would solve that issue. There are 100-200 estimated deaths from “Unrecognized Critical Congenital Heart Disease in Neonates” each year.

“At the University, we are all about exporting knowledge and developing knowledge, and that’s what we are doing with this,” Mathan said. “I [want to] be involved in setting policy and improving care to improve children’s lives.”

—compiled by Jordan Bower

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