Every year between 750 and 1,300 babies are born with what doctors call critical congenital heart defects – physical abnormalities so severe that they will probably die very early in life unless they receive surgery.
However, usually there are no outward signs that anything is wrong, and the first a parent knows about it is when their baby suddenly becomes extremely ill
Current screening methods, which rely on pre-natal ultrasound and clinical assessment, are thought to pick up about half of cases.
But medics at Queen Mary, University of London, say a new technique called pulse oximetry could raise that to about three-quarters, meaning another 200 or 300 cases are identified annually.
The two-minute test involves a simple clip being placed on a toe, which measures the amount of oxygen in the blood. Babies with low blood oxygen are sent for further tests.
Dr Shakila Thangaratinam, a senior lecturer in obstetrics and maternal medicine, who led the study, published in The Lancet, said: “Heart defects in newborn babies are thankfully rare but their potential impact is devastating.
“This study is really important because by including such large numbers of babies, we can show that pulse oximetry is effective at picking up defects, without misdiagnosing healthy babies.”
She and colleagues analysed 13 previous studies, looking at results from almost 230,000 babies.
They found pulse oximetry could identify 76.5 per cent of critical congenital heart defects, compared to about half using current methods.
Dr Thangaratinam went on: “We know that of those babies with undiagnosed heart defects which go on to die, 50 per cent die at home or in the emergency room, because they never make it to surgery.
“The whole point of pulse oximetry is to make sure more are identified earlier and get the surgery they need.”
Dr Thangaratinam emphasised that pulse oximetry could not flag up congenital heart defects which manifested themselves later in life, such as those which caused heart attacks in apparently healthy young adults.
Anne Keatley-Clarke, chief executive of the Children’s Heart Federation said “Pulse oximetry should be an essential part of the tool kit medical professionals are using in the screening of all newborn babies.
“The evidence shows that this test would help save children’s lives at a time when still far to many heart problems go undiagnosed, as well as detecting possible respiratory conditions.
“Concerns about financial and time costs should not be used to prevent the use of this test across the NHS. It’s value has been proven and it’s ability to save many children’s lives far outweighs these issues”