Each year in the United States, there are nearly 4 million births. Every one of them – at any stage of pregnancy, labor, or delivery – requires constant vigilance. Anything from a delayed ultrasound to fetal stress exposes the mother or baby to the danger of injury or even death.
Even so, the problem gets surprisingly little attention. For the vast majority of mothers and babies, pregnancy and birth go smoothly. And even when things go wrong and victims pursue litigation, obstetrics represents only a small proportion of all liability claims.
Yet obstetrics, in itself, presents a major risk. A recent report from liability insurer Coverys has now put this in unequivocal but startling terms: 80% of birth injury liability claims concern injuries “with the highest clinical severity,” and almost a quarter (24%) resulted in the death of the baby, mother, or both.
Birth Injuries Statistics
The extensive report analyzed 472 birth injury liability claims made between 2013 and 2017 for inappropriate management of pregnancy, labor, and/or delivery. Of these claims, results show:
- Nearly half (40%) of birth injury lawsuits concern allegations related to labor.
- Injuries to babies are more common than injuries to mothers.
- Infant injuries are most concentrated in 3 categories: neurological or brain damage (41% of cases), shoulder injuries (37%), and death or stillbirth (34%).
- Vaginal births resulted in more claims than cesarean sections (52% vs. 45%).
- Injury risks are especially high for vaginal births following previous C-sections.
We already know from research that birth injuries are devastatingly common, inflicting 7 out of every 1,000 newborns. But such statistics can seem abstract. This report is but one of few that reveal just how extensively birth injuries affect the families that pursue justice.
Notes Marlene Icenhower, senior risk consultant at Coverys and the report’s author: “These claims are really severe and really expensive.”
What Are the Consequences of High-Severity Birth Injury?
When medical errors are made in obstetrics, the report says, “the results are often permanent, significant, grave, or even fatal.” Yet most are preventable.
For example, around 4 of the 7 newborns mentioned above develop cerebral palsy, a neurological condition caused by damage or lack of oxygen to the infant’s brain at birth. In some of these cases, the doctor’s error was as trifling as failing to monitor oxygen levels. But the effects – inhibited muscle movement and coordination, among others – are lifelong.
Besides the clear emotional costs for patients and families, the financial costs of managing birth injuries can be astronomical. Many babies born with birth injuries need round-the-clock care as they age, which costs families millions of dollars and often leaves them with no choice but to pursue birth injury litigation, according to Coverys.
This is why it’s imperative to proactively mitigate birth injury risks. And though it doesn’t take much to inflict injuries on vulnerable patients, it doesn’t take much to prevent them, either.
The Importance of Proactive Risk Management
The report continued by recommending areas providers can focus on to reduce chances adverse outcomes will occur – many of them to do with miscommunication.
Some miscommunication issues are internal and arise when obstetrics departments lack clear protocols and direction. In addition, the report noted, pregnant women tend to develop strong expectations about what their birth experience will be like from misleading information online or conversations with their peers.
“Physicians have to anticipate and prepare for that,” said Icenhower. “Begin early, and have a good, communicative relationship with your patient. Discuss some of the things that can happen, and sort of work through the expectations in the context of a realistic birth plan.”
Statistics alone might not be enough to motivate doctors to take action. Other recent research shows that childbirth complications are still on the rise. Could this report tip the scale by following up more disturbing data with clear strategies for managing risks? Perhaps. After all: “The safety of pregnant and laboring mothers, as well as their infants, is at stake,” the report concludes. “Providers and organizations who use the insights in this report can be a powerful force for improvement.”
Read the report for a full list of Coverys’s recommendations for healthcare providers – because when doctors overlook lethal details, it’s up to patients to advocate for themselves.