A simple test to screen newborns for congenital heart disease is cheap, simple, and saves lives claim researchers.

The researchers from Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Birmingham examined data on 230,000 babies. They claim their pulse oximery screening test, which costs £6.24, only takes a couple of minutes and can be carried out by a midwife, can successfully detect 76 per cent of birth defects.

At present the US is the only country to have adopted routine pulse oximetry screening.

Currently around 5,000 babies are born each year in the UK suffering from congenital heart disease, with around half diagnosed before they leave hospital. Some heart defects are picked up by ultrasound scan carried out when a woman is around 20 weeks pregnant or by physical examination of the newborn baby, but many cases are missed.

The most serious cases can be fatal if untreated, but surgery has a high success rate if carried out as soon as possible.

Lead researcher Dr Shakila Thangaratinam, a Clinical Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, said: "Heart defects in newborn babies are thankfully rare but their potential impact is devastating.

"This study is really important because by including such large numbers of babies, we can show that pulse oximetry is effective at picking up defects, without misdiagnosing healthy babies. Previous research also indicates that it is cost-effective.

"This study is the best evidence yet that using pulse oximetry to screen for heart defects should be included in the newborn health checks."

Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said "This analysis provides a compelling case for the wider use of pulse oximetry to screen for congenital heart defects in newborn babies.

"The BHF has funded specialist training for people who perform ultrasound scans during pregnancy, so they are able to spot congenital heart defects in the womb before the baby is born.

"The combination of this expert screening before and after birth should provide a powerful strategy for identifying babies with serious heart defects, so that they can be promptly treated."

Posted by Penny Hosie