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    When to look harder at jaundice

    Even though most babies with jaundice have uncomplicated jaundice, 18% of them will have their course complicated by hemolysis. If one is following American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines,1 said Janelle L Aby, MD, FAAP, one might need to treat at a little lower level than one otherwise would, depending on the clinical situation.

    When one looks at data from across the country, there is significant variation in how phototherapy is used, and a sense that phototherapy is overused in some cases and underused in others, Aby told pediatricians in her session “Neonatal jaundice: When to look further, when to be concerned” at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference. These data aren't new, she said, but the concept of crash-cart phototherapy is, particularly to community pediatricians.

    Crash-cart phototherapy means starting phototherapy in the office, the moment one confirms an urgent need for it. If a pediatrician seeing a baby grows very concerned about high levels of jaundice and perhaps lethargy because of bilirubin toxicity, he or she should not just call a local neonatal intensive care unit and arrange for ambulance transport. Start phototherapy right in the office at that moment, so the baby can get treatment while being transported.

    More: Guidance on neonatal pain management

    Urgently starting phototherapy can make a significant difference in outcomes, while delays longer than an hour can be problematic. Just as hospitals stock oxygen or EpiPens, a community pediatrician might need a phototherapy device in his or her office. That's not standard practice for community pediatricians presently.

    To think through a clinical scenario in a stepwise fashion, remember the RAINBOW acronym:

    ·      Risk of bilirubin toxicity.

    ·      Assess rate of bilirubin rise.

    ·      Investigate causes of hyperbilirubinemia.

    ·      Number (total bilirubin/TB) at which to treat.

    ·      Breastfeeds to continue.

    ·      Outcome.

    ·      Well-being at follow-up.

    Another invaluable tool is available at www.bilitool.org. Plugging in information such as the baby's age and bilirubin level calls up published nomograms and AAP treatment guidelines for that case. Not every baby with the same numeric bilirubin level is the same. Say a preterm baby's bilirubin level falls into the Bhutani nomogram2 low-intermediate risk category. If the baby is late preterm with hemolysis, he or she might already have surpassed the threshold at which AAP guidelines recommend phototherapy.

    It's a 2-step process—the Bhutani nomogram provides a general picture of risk, while AAP guidelines drill down into actual treatment recommendations. Using these guidelines is somewhat tricky because the AAP uses slightly different risk categories. Consider a bilirubin level of 15 mg/dL at 60 hours. For a term neonate without risk factors, the AAP does not recommend phototherapy until 16 mg/dL or higher. However, if a baby has hemolysis, AAP guidelines recommend phototherapy at 15 mg/dL. There's no specific number that drives treatment decisions because every hour the threshold changes, for all categories.

    Ultimately, said Aby, we are trying to identify the babies who really need to start phototherapy at a lower TB level, versus those who perhaps do not.


    1. American Academy of Pediatrics Subcommittee on Hyperbilirubinemia. Management of hyperbilirubinemia in the newborn infant 35 or more weeks of gestation. Pediatrics. 2004;114(1):297-316. Erratum in: Pediatrics. 2004;114(4):1138.

    2. Bhutani VK, Johnson L, Sivieri EM. Predictive ability of a predischarge hour-specific serum bilirubin for subsequent significant hyperbilirubinemia in healthy term and near-term newborns. Pediatrics. 1999;103(1):6-14.

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    John Jesitus
    John Jesitus is a medical writer based in Westminster, CO.


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