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State may mandate heart defect test for newborns
Medical center plans trial to screen all babies before discharge
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center, along with all other Georgia hospitals, may be required to test newborn babies for congenital heart defects.

A Covington mother, Jessica Hatcher, whose son was born with a congenital defect requiring a heart transplant, has pushed legislators to mandate pulse oximetry screenings for all newborns.

The screening measures blood oxygen levels and heart rates through a small device placed on the finger and toe of a baby. It takes less than one minute and is painless.

Republican Rep. Andy Welch of McDonough introduced a bill calling for the Georgia Department of Health to study whether or not the test should be a standard. The study will look at the benefits of testing, potential costs and implementation.

Depending on the study, lawmakers could make the screen mandatory.

But the medical center has already been looking into making the test common practice.

“We’ve been actually investigating that over the past year,” said Sara Dyer, director of Women’s and Children’s Services for the medical center. “We do newborn pulse ox on all our babies now anytime we hear a heart murmur or anytime we have a concern.”

Dyer said the medical center is in the process of implementing a one- to three-month trial of screening all newborn babies prior to discharge.

That trial should start in the fall and if proven successful and practical, the medical center could make it standard.

“We anticipate probably implementing that in this next year if everything works out and it’s practical and the research continues to support it as a good idea,” said Dyer.

Dyer said the medical center delivers around 4,000 babies each year and has the support care to follow up on the test.

“There are some things to consider,” said Dyer. “You have to have good follow-up care. Northeast Georgia is in a very good position because we have the cardiography that we can do if we identify a problem. We have pediatric cardiologists on staff to follow up and refer to. So we have everything in place to be able to handle the results of the test.”

Smaller hospitals, she said, could have a difficult time with the mandatory test if additional resources are not readily available.

“I think it will have a much more significant impact on smaller hospitals that don’t have access and don’t have all the technology to support this process,” said Dyer. “It’s a wonderful idea, but it takes a whole system to manage that ... you have the test, but what do you do afterwards if it’s a positive test?”

If the state makes the test mandatory, insurance companies would be required to pay for the screening, which costs about $4.

Hatcher told the Newton Citizen her son, Wyatt, 3, would have likely gone undiagnosed if it were not for the test. He is currently recuperating from another surgery.

It’s Hatcher’s hope that her son’s plight can give other children a chance at life.

“We feel like Wyatt is here for a reason and this may very well be it,” Hatcher said. “What we can do for other people is why he is here.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says congenital heart defects are the leading cause of infant death due to birth defects.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.