In 2017 the Canadian Pediatric Society published the practice point Pulse oximetry screening in newborns to enhance detection of critical congenital heart disease.  In this document we recommended universal screening for CCHDs but stressed the following:

“Recognizing that delivery and time of discharge practices vary across Canada, the timing of testing should be individualized for each centre and (ideally) occur after 24 hours postbirth to lower FP results. And because the intent is to screen newborns before they develop symptoms, the goal should be to perform screening before they reach 36 hours of age.”

This recommendation was put in place to minimize the number of false positive results and prevent Pediatricians and Cardiologists nationwide from being inundated with requests to rule out CCHD as earlier testing may pick up other causes for low oxygen saturation such as TTN.  The issue remains though that many patients are indeed discharged before 24 hours and in the case of midwife deliveries either in centres or in the home what do we do?

A Population Study From the Netherlands May Be of Help Here

Researchers in the Netherlands had a golden opportunity to answer this question as a significant proportion of births occur there in the home under the care of a midwife. Accuracy of Pulse Oximetry Screening for Critical Congenital Heart Defects after Home Birth and Early Postnatal Discharge by Ilona C. Narayen et al was published this month in J Peds. About 30% of births are cared for by a midwife with about 20% occurring in the home. The authors chose to study this population of infants who were all above 35 weeks gestation and not admitted to an intensive care nor had suspicion of CCHD prior to delivery. The timing of the screening was altered from the typical 24-48 hours to be two time points to be more reflective of midwives practice. All patients were recruited after birth with the use of information pamphlets. The prospective protocol was screening on 2 separate moments: on day 1, at least 1 hour after birth, and on day 2 or 3 of life. The criteria for passing or failing the test are the same as those outlined in the CPS practice point. As part of the study, patients with known CCHDs were also screened separately as a different group to determine the accuracy of the screening test in patients with known CCHD.


There were nearly 24000 patients born during this period. Only 49 cases of CCHD were identified by screening and of these 36 had been picked up antenatally giving a detection rate of 73%. Out of 10 patients without prenatal diagnosis who also had saturation results available the detection rate was 50%. Three of the misses were coarctation of the aorta (most likely diagnosis to be missed in other studies), pulmonary stenosis (this one surprises me) and TGA (really surprises me). The false-positive rate of pulse oximetry screening (no CCHD) was 0.92%. The specificity was over 99% meaning that if you didn’t have CCHD you were very likely to have a negative test. Not surprisingly, most false- positives occurred on day 1 (190 on day 1 vs 31 infants on day 2 or 3). There were five patients missed who were not detected either by antenatal ultrasound. These 5 negatives ultimately presented with symptoms at later time points and all but one survived (TGA) so out of 24000 births the system for detecting CCHD did reasonably well in enhancing detection as they picked up another 5 babies that had been missed antenatally narrowing the undetected from 10 down to 5.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the study though is what they also found. As the authors state: “Importantly, 61% (134/221) of the infants with false-positive screenings proved to have significant noncardiac illnesses re- quiring intervention and medical follow-up, including infection/ sepsis (n = 31) and PPHN or transient tachypnea of the newborn (n = 88)”

There are certainly detractors of this screening approach but remember these infants were all thought to be asymptomatic. By implementing the screening program there was opportunity to potentially address infants care needs before they went on to develop more significant illness. Under appreciated TTN could lead to hypoxia and worsen and PPHN could become significantly worse as well. I think it is time to think of screening in this way as being more general and not just about finding CCHD. It is a means to identify children with CCHD OR RESPIRATORY illnesses earlier in their course and do something about it!