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  • Posted August 7, 2023

Spotting Heart Defects While Baby Still in Womb Is Crucial, Study Shows

Diagnosis of congenital heart defects while a baby is still in the womb offers opportunities for earlier corrective surgery. And that can mean better outcomes for an infant's neurodevelopmental and physical health, new research shows.

“For infants with critical disease especially, getting surgery a week earlier can make a big difference in the development of the brain and other organs,” said lead author Dr. Joyce Woo, a cardiologist at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

“Earlier surgery for certain types of noncritical congenital heart disease can also prevent poor outcomes, such as heart failure," she added in a hospital news release. "Our findings emphasize that prenatal diagnosis is crucial to optimize surgical timing and the long-term health of the baby. Prenatal diagnosis needs to be equitably accessible to all pregnant people.”

Congenital heart defects affect nearly 1% of all live births.

The association between earlier diagnosis and earlier surgery was found for those with critical defects, where surgery is required before a baby can leave the hospital, and also for certain noncritical defects, the study authors said.

On average, prenatally diagnosed babies had surgery one week sooner than those diagnosed after birth, the findings showed. For those with noncritical defects, surgery happened between two and 12 months sooner.

For the study, Woo's team analyzed 1,131 patients aged 9 years and younger with congenital heart defects. All received their initial heart surgery at Lurie Children's between 2015 and 2021. About half were diagnosed prenatally.

The researchers found that the average age at surgery was significantly younger in infants whose congenital heart disease was diagnosed prenatally.

Those with one of the most common types of noncritical disease, called atrial septal defects, had surgery about a year sooner.

“Our study shows that the best care for kids starts with prenatal diagnosis. More research is needed to identify and overcome the barriers to prenatal diagnosis,” Woo said. “These can include social barriers such as distance to care, lack of childcare, or inability to take time off from work. We need a better understanding of these factors in order to provide the highest quality care to babies born with cardiac defects, and their families.”

The study findings were published Aug. 4 in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on congenital heart defects.

SOURCE: Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, news release, Aug. 4, 2023

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