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UIHC Begins Routine Newborn Heart Screenings

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IOWA CITY, Iowa- The earlier doctors detect life-threatening health issues, usually the better the chances for a cure. And doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics began applying that theory on Tuesday to all babies just a day or two after delivery. The routine newborn screenings that began will include a test for seven types of heart defects. Those defects appear in about 4,800 births every year in the U.S.

The testing is called pulse oximetry and it's a kind of screening that measures low level of oxygen in the blood. It can be a sign of heart issues in newborns. UNIVERSITY OF IOWA HOSPITALS AND CLINICS always screens babies in intensive care for heart defects, but research suggested every newborn could benefit from early detection.

Karla Buchholz of Waterloo came to the University of Iowa to deliver her son because doctors considered her pregnancy high risk. There's also a history of heart disease in her family. So when nurses explained the U of I wanted to screen all newborns for early signs of heart defects, she volunteered two-day-old Peyton for the very first test of a healthy newborn. "For the little expense of the test, and it wasn't invasive, I think it's definitely something that should be added," Buchholz said.

The pulse oximetry test places a sensor on the hands and feet of a child 24 to 48 hours old to measure differences in oxygen flow in different parts of the body. Too great a difference is a potential sign of trouble and a call for more testing. Peyton passed his test easily, to his mother's great relief. "Yeah, absolutely, anything to let us know we're home free," Buchholz said.

The types of heart defects detected by this screening often don't show up in typical exams of newborns. And by the time symptoms do appear, at seven to ten days of age, you have a very sick baby.

U of I Pediatric Cardiologist, Dr. Ben Reinking, said such testing could have helped a handful of kids getting treated now. "Here at Iowa, we probably have five or six kids we see who probably would have been diagnosed with this screen and detected before they went home and got sick and had to be operated on in a less ideal state," Dr. Reinking said. Dr. Reinking said this $20 to $30 non-invasive test wasn't considered for routine newborn screenings before because it does generate some false positive readings. That can lead to more expensive, and unnecessary, echocardiogram testing. But Dr. Reinking said more research found the few false positives were greatly outweighed by the benefit of detecting heart defects early in what appeared to be healthy newborns.

Both New Jersey and Wisconsin have mandated this screening for newborns statewide. The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics will tests its effectiveness on the approximately 2,000 births a year in Iowa City. A panel of specialists will weigh the results to see if it should be adopted statewide.

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