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Screen newborns within three-day window

February 6, 2014 

  • In summary

    Hospitals should be able to ensure that newborns’ blood samples reach labs in a timely manner.

South Carolina hospitals jeopardize the lives of scores of newborn children each year by failing to test them on a timely basis for deadly genetic disorders. Fortunately, fixing the problem is relatively easy – if hospitals resolve to do it.

A nationwide investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal revealed that South Carolina ranks among the worst in the nation as to how quickly hospitals send babies’ blood samples to state labs for testing of rare but potentially fatal conditions. The delay puts babies at risk and almost certainly has resulted in the failure to provide treatment in time to save some of them, according to the report.

Federal guidelines recommend that blood samples – a prick of blood from a newborn’s heel placed on a card – should take no more than three days to arrive at labs for testing. Children with genetic disorders can die or become extremely ill just a few days after birth, and while the diseases often are treatable, fast analysis of the sample is vital to survival.

Unfortunately, in South Carolina last year, 34 percent of newborn screening samples took five or more days to get to the state lab – a percentage that’s more than double other poor-performing states. And last year, only a quarter of newborn screening samples in the state arrived at the lab within three days.

Only about one in every 800 babies is born with a potentially severe or deadly condition that can be treated and managed after proper testing. But if testing is delayed, hospitals might not even be aware when a child succumbs to one of these rare disorders.

On average, about a third of the samples sent by hospitals took more than five days to get to state labs for testing. But at some hospitals, the number of late samples was as high as 71 percent.

The Milwaukee Journal found that delays occurred for a variety of reasons, but nearly all could be corrected with some vigilance on the part of hospitals. For example, one reason samples are delayed is because new staff members don’t know the protocol to send samples within 24 hours of collection.

That problem is easy to solve. Brief all new staff members on sample protocol.

Other reasons for delay include samples being “batched” and held in groups instead of being sent out immediately; samples are lost or delayed inside the hospital; or samples are sent through the U.S. mail. One hospital has been sending the samples through the mail even though the state lab in Columbia is only about a two-hour drive away.

Hospitals should voluntarily adopt standards to ensure that samples arrive at labs within the 3-day window. But the Legislature also should consider requirements enforced by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to make certain that the protocols are being followed.

There is no excuse for putting newborns at unnecessary risk just because of sloppy procedures on the part of hospital personnel.

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