THURSDAY, Sept. 9 (HealthDay News) -- A newly developed assessment tool may give doctors and parents a heads-up about the kinds of medical problems that may face premature infants, researchers say.

The PhysiScore allows doctors to use a computational method to create a score based on factors such as a baby's pulse rate and breathing rate during the first three hours after birth. In a new study, researchers said they were able to use the electronic scoring system to predict with a 91 percent to 98 percent degree of accuracy whether an infant would have serious medical problems.

"The beauty is we don't have to stick anybody with a needle or do more expensive tests. Now we have the possibility of using the power of data already available in the intensive care unit to greatly improve care for premature infants," study co-author Dr. Anna Penn, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a neonatologist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, said in a news release from the university.

The researchers, who report their findings in the Sept. 8 issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine, say their tool expands on the "Apgar" score, which doctors use shortly after birth to gauge the health of a newborn baby.

The researchers developed the PhysiScore system after studying 138 premature infants born between 2008 and 2009. All weighed less than 4 pounds, 6.5 ounces, and were born at 34 weeks of gestation or earlier.

Penn said the score provides more reliable information about a baby's medical prospects than the Apgar score. "With a PhysiScore, I could have two 25-week gestation, 700-gram [1.5-pound] babies and know that they each have a very different individual risk profile," she said.

One expert, Dr. F. Sessions Cole, chief medical officer at St. Louis Children's Hospital, said the Apgar score remains important in part because it requires doctors to closely examine babies and respond to medical problems.

"It is an important aid in assessing the success of the human newborn infant's transition from womb to world," Cole, who was not involved with the new study, said in an interview.

As for the new tool, Cole said more research is needed to prove that it works.

More information

For more on premature babies, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.