A birth injury, as defined by the Merck Manual, is any damage sustained by an infant during the childbirth process. The category includes a wide variety of injuries, from minor cuts to severe and potentially disabling forms of brain damage. Parents are often surprised to learn that many, if not most, children are born with slight injuries. Bruising, swelling and minor knicks are extremely common. Chilbirth, after all, is a taxing physical process, one in which an infant’s body is exposed to numerous mechanical forces. It’s not easy to give birth. Just as difficult is being born.
When Is A Birth Injury Evidence Of Medical Malpractice?
In relatively-rare cases, however, newborns can suffer severe injuries during labor or delivery, forms of harm that may even lead to life-long impairments.
Take hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) as just one example. This type of brain damage happens when an infant’s oxygen supply is cut off abruptly during the delivery process, leading to a dangerous decrease in blood flow. Without oxygen, a child’s brain cells begin to die, which can lead to long-term neurological impairments, even the chronic neuromuscular disorder cerebral palsy. Given the condition’s drastic consequences, hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy is strikingly common, occurring in between 2 to 3 of every 1,000 live births, HopeForHIE.org reports.
After an infant sustains birth injuries, many parents begin to wonder if something could have been done to save their child from harm. The answer to that question is complicated, contentious and, above all, unique to each case.
Is Every Birth Injury Unavoidable?
Members of the medical community often argue that birth injuries, on the whole, are unavoidable. This can be true in specific cases; some children suffer harm despite the best efforts of expert medical professionals. The truth of the matter, though, is that babies can also suffer due to medical negligence.
Medical negligence, the concept on which nearly every medical malpractice lawsuit is based, recognizes that doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers owe patients a simple legal duty: to provide care that meets the accepted standards of their profession. This is a legal and ethical obligation; when you visit a doctor, you, and your child, have a legal right to receive medical care that lives up to a standard. The flip-side of obligation is liability. When medical professionals fail to uphold the standard of care, causing injuries, they can be held accountable in a civil lawsuit.
As we mentioned earlier, some birth injuries are truly unavoidable. These are tragic, but ultimately innocent, consequences of the inherent difficulties presented by labor and delivery, along with the complexities of medical care.
That’s not always the case, though. Birth injuries can be caused by medical mistakes, some of which rise to the level of legally-relevant negligence. Keep in mind that even some medical errors aren’t evidence of medical negligence; it’s the standard of care, and deviations from that standard, that matter in a court of law.
Tackling Preventable Birth Injury Causes
With that being said, the medical community can certainly work to decrease a large proportion of birth injuries by focusing on their preventable causes. Need proof? Just look at what happens when you implement better communication policies during the delivery process. Birth injuries drop dramatically.
After 14 hospitals adopted the Premier Perinatal Safety Initiative, a set of best practices designed to prevent neonatal harm, cases of birth asphyxia dropped by 25%. Traumatic birth injuries, which are caused by mechanical forces, were reduced by a whopping 72%. Key to this success were four evidence-based changes in medical practice:
- initiating emergency c-sections in a timely manner
- using labor-inducing drugs only in appropriate situations
- increased training in the use of birth-assistive devices, like forceps
- training to improve communication among members of a birth team
As the Premier Perinatal Safety Initative makes clear, hospitals and doctors can do better. From one perspective, they already are doing better. In the developed world, birth injury rates are actually declining. Why? Most doctors believe that birth injuries are becoming less common because many obstetricians have chosen to reject intrusive, and potentially injurious, intervention methods, like forceps or vacuum extraction. Instead of using medical devices, which can hurt newborns, an increasing number of obstetricians are opting to perform emergency cesarean sections when a delivery becomes difficult.