Press release

UK National Screening Committee recommends new test for newborn babies with heart disease

The UK NSC wants to pilot pulse oximetry in England. It is a simple test that can screen babies for congenital heart defects.

A newborn baby holding a finger

Pulse oximetry is a simple test where a clip placed on a baby’s fingers and toes measures the amount of oxygen in their blood. Its use can help the NHS find many more babies with serious heart disease so they can be treated to prevent deaths and long term disability. The committee wants to use the pilot to better understand the implications of using the test on services for newborn babies.

Dr Anne Mackie, Director of Programmes for the UK National Screening Committee (NSC), which is supported by Public Health England (PHE), said:

This is an exciting prospect. Pulse oximetry has the potential to detect more babies with congenital heart defects to save lives and make sure babies get the care they need before they become seriously ill. However the test will also identify many, many other babies with low oxygen. Some will need care for other problems and some will not be ill at all.

Congenital heart defects affect about 3,500 newborn babies every year. Babies are screened for heart problems as part of the NHS Fetal Anomaly Screening Programme and the NHS Newborn and Infant Physical Examination (NIPE) but the new test will identify more of these babies with congenital heart defects at an early stage.

Anne Keatley-Clarke, Chief Executive of the Children’s Heart Federation said:

We are delighted that the UK NSC recognises that Pulse Oximetry has the potential to be an important additional test for detecting babies with congenital heart defects. This simple test can prevent many babies born with life-threatening conditions from leaving hospital without being diagnosed. Detection at birth means babies can receive treatment early helping to save lives, reduce physical harm and prevent distress to families.

The recommendation was made at the UK NSC committee meeting on 12 March 2014, the minutes of which are published today (7 May 2014). Also at the meeting the UK NSC recommended against national screening for both dental disease and coeliac disease.

Dental disease

The UK NSC review found evidence that population screening for dental disease among children aged 6 to 9 years is not effective. The review and consultation responses suggest that resources would be better allocated to a range of evidence based preventative programmes that will reduce inequalities and help children achieve good oral health, for example school based tooth brushing programmes.

Coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is a common bowel condition that occurs when the immune system is overly sensitive to gluten, which is found in wheat, rye and barley, causing damage to the small bowel. The evidence review showed that there does not appear to be a health improvement from detection and treatment in people without symptoms. This is the main group of people who would be detected by screening.

The UK NSC will review these recommendations again in 3 years as part of its regular evidence review process or earlier if significant new evidence becomes available.

The full minutes from the UK NSC meeting on 12 March 2014 are available on the UK NSC website.


Notes to editors:

  1. The UK National Screening Committee is independent of, but supported by PHE.

  2. From 1 April 2013 local authorities became responsible for assessing the oral health needs of their local population, developing oral health strategies and commissioning oral health improvement programmes. PHE will be providing support to local authorities and are currently developing commissioning guides starting with a focus on the needs of young children. A revised version of Delivering Better Oral Health will be published in 2014. This evidence informed toolkit for prevention will be distributed to all NHS practices in England so they can give the best advice to patients about self-care for themselves and their children.

  3. Public Health England’s mission is to protect and improve the nation’s health and to address inequalities through working with national and local government, the NHS, industry and the voluntary and community sector. PHE is an operationally autonomous executive agency of the Department of Follow us on Twitter @PHE_Screening

PHE screening press office

Published 7 May 2014