Should infants be screened for heart defects with pulse oximetry?

A simple, potentially cost-effective screening test to detect infant heart defects is rarely used in hospitals today.

Darshak Sanghavi, the chief of pediatric cardiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is calling for a simple pulse oximetry test to screen infants for heart defects.

He cites a study showing that the test can detect 75 percent of critical heart defects that would have been previously missed. The number needed to screen was 2,000, meaning that 2,000 babies would need to undergo the test to detect one critical heart defect.

As with every screening test, false positives are an issue, and in this case, seems to be low, with only “about two instances of extra, non-invasive testing for every serious heart defect that was picked up.” Compare that number to prostate cancer screening, where 50 false positives are found for every death prevented.

Dr. Sanghvavi makes a compelling case, with an inexpensive test, evidence of potential benefit, and a low risk of false positive repercussions.


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