10/06/2013 02:18 pm ET

17 States Still Don't Have Legislation Requiring Pulse Oximetry


Here's the bad news: congenital heart defects are the most common birth defects in newborns, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in 555 newborns have a heart defect, which can result in death or disability if not immediately detected.

Here's the good news: a cheap and easy screening, known as a pulse oximetry test, is credited with saving the lives of thousands of newborns each year and it's not at all invasive. (Light sensors are attached to a baby's hands and feet to measure the oxygen levels in their blood.)

But, there's more bad news: ProPublica recently reported that more than a dozen states do not have active legislation requiring the screening -- 17 to be exact. Up to 1,500 newborns go home every year without being diagnosed.

Newborns have an extra vessel to help blood flow in utero, which means heart defects are often difficult to diagnose right away because the babies appear healthy. But that vessel closes shortly after birth and many parents don't even realize there is a problem until they bring their babies home.

In Sept. 2011, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius added the pulse oximetry test to the “Recommended Uniform Screening Panel” for newborns, which serves as a best practices guide for hospitals and birthing centers.

Most states have gone a step further and have legislation in place to ensure all babies are screened for congenital heart defects before leaving the hospital. But in the states where the screening isn't yet required by law, parents apparently face the luck of the draw. While many major metropolitan hospitals perform the test, "this is not simply a rural health care problem," according to the ProPublica article's author, Michael Grabell. "Cardiologists and neonatologists I’ve spoken with said they knew of hospitals in New York City, Boston and metropolitan Atlanta that weren’t screening newborns for heart defects."

Of the 17 states who still don't require the test, some -- like Hawaii -- are pushing to pass legislation. “I don’t know who would oppose it,” Don Weisman of the American Heart Association's Hawaii chapter told Civil Beat. “The outcome is to save babies lives. Who would fight that?”