14 Jul 2018

Hospital test change could better protect babies from brain damage - researchers

3:08 pm on 14 July 2018

New research shows changing the way hospitals test newborns for low blood sugar, could better protect babies from brain damage and save money in the long term.

Newborn baby holding mother's thumb. (file pic)

Researchers found testing strips have a false positive rate of 20 percent. Photo: 123rf

The condition, known as neonatal hypoglycaemia affects one in six babies, with preterm, smaller or larger than usual babies, or those with diabetic mothers being most at risk.

It is tested by taking blood, by pricking the baby's foot.

Researchers from the University of Auckland's Liggins Institute and Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences modelled the full costs of the commonly used testing strips and the less common enzymatic tests, to see which would be the most cost effective way of studying the blood.

They found the testing strips, which are the cheaper option, have a false positive rate of 20 percent, requiring a second blood-test to confirm borderline results.

Liggins Institute's professor Jane Harding said enzymatic tests, which study the enzymes in the blood were more expensive, but were much more effective.

"We concluded if you take into the account the low levels on the less accurate test need to be checked, because it is not accurate, it's cheaper to do the more accurate test in the first place," she said.

An estimated 20,000 babies a year require testing in New Zealand and it was estimated making the switch to the enzymatic tests could lead to long term savings of $365,000.

Prof Harding said it could also help a quicker diagnosis, and that if babies go undetected for low blood sugar for too long it could cause brain damage.

"They are four times more likely to have problems with executive function like memory, following instruction and paying attention as pre-schoolers," she said.