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  • A newborn receives a quick and painless pulse oximetry test at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital.

    A newborn receives a quick and painless pulse oximetry test at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital.

    For 5 years, test has found hidden heart defects in newborns

    by Cole Cosgrove

    Hidden heart defects in five healthy-appearing newborns have been found and fixed, thanks to a quick and painless test that’s celebrating its fifth anniversary today at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital.

    Since Feb. 14, 2008, more than 10,000 day-old babies have received the screening that is free to all children born at Tacoma General. Called pulse oximetry, the test detects low levels of oxygen in the blood, which may be indicative of a heart defect.

    Tacoma General, in collaboration with the MultiCare Mary Bridge Pediatric Heart Center, was one of the first hospitals in the state to offer pulse oximetry screening to all healthy-appearing newborns, and is still one of very few hospitals across the nation to routinely screen newborns for heart problems.

    Parents of newborns can ask for this test if their hospital does not routinely offer it. (For more information about the screening, visit

    “In the five years of our program at Tacoma General, our screening has diagnosed five infants with critical heart defects who would have been discharged home,” said Dr. Matthew Park, a pediatric cardiologist with NorthWest Children's Heart Care and Pediatrix Medical Group, who practices at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital and Tacoma General Hospital. “All five of the families are very grateful to the program that diagnosed their children in a timely manner so that lifesaving surgery could occur.”

    Additionally, more than 40 children are receiving follow up medical care from a pediatric cardiologist.

    “My big passion for this comes from babies who do not have this test, and then show up in our Emergency Department or clinics when they’re very sick with serious heart disease that could have been detected earlier,” Dr. Park said.

    Dr. Park has tracked 25 infants who were born at outside regional hospitals who were discharged home and later presented to Mary Bridge or clinics with significant heart failure from delayed diagnosis. Many of these infants have had complications and prolonged hospitalizations that might have been avoided with more timely diagnosis.

    In 2012, the screening began to be offered for the first time for newborns at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, supported by grant funding from the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Puyallup.

    Nine out of 1,000 infants are born with congenital heart disease. Of those, 25 percent are critical defects that require lifesaving surgery within the first month of life.

    “Unfortunately, less than half of all infants are diagnosed by routine prenatal ultrasound,” Dr. Park said. “Due to normal cardiac and respiratory physiologic changes that occur during the normal transition infants go through during the first 48 hours of life, many infants with critical defects do not have signs, symptoms or exam findings that alert parents and caregivers to the possibility of a critical heart defects. These infants can become very sick very quickly with a high chance of sudden death.”

    MultiCare’s research helps change national policy

    The work that has already saved young lives in Tacoma could soon be saving newborns across the United States. Because of research at Tacoma General and other sites, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has recommended pulse oximetry for all newborns nationwide.

    Representatives of MultiCare’s program were one of three U.S. hospital teams selected to travel to Washington, D.C., to make a presentation about the lifesaving potential of universal pulse oximetry newborn screening.

    In January 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially endorsed newborn screening for critical congenital heart disease.

    For this pioneering work in screening newborns for heart defects, MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital’s Family Birth Center and the MultiCare Mary Bridge Pediatric Heart Center received the 2011 Warren Featherstone Reid Award for Excellence in Health Care.

    “Our newborns are showing why this test could soon be saving young lives at other hospitals,” said Shelly Mullin, President of the West Pierce Region for MultiCare Health System. “Mothers who give birth at our Family Birth Center find comfort in knowing their babies have been screened for heart defects before they go home from the hospital.”

    Feb. 7-14 is Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week.

    Our patients in the news:

    KING 5 News, Dec. 20, 2011: “Heart test that saved baby now recommended for all newborns”

    KOMO 4 News, Feb. 17, 2009: "If it weren't for the screening, she wouldn't be here"

    Posted on Feb 14, 2013 in Cardiac, Kids' Health