Despite all of the recent advances in modern medicine, severe complications for women during childbirth are on the rise. According to data published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) in late 2018, “[t]he proportion of women who experienced serious complications while giving birth in U.S. hospitals rose 45 percent between 2006 and 2015.”
This is an alarming statistic, and it is one for which there is no excuse. In today’s world, fetal and maternal birth injuries, resulting from malpractice, should be virtually non-existent. Yet, as AHRQ’s data shows, this is, unfortunately, not the case.
As is to be expected, AHRQ’s data indicates that the rates of certain types of severe maternal complications have increased more significantly than others. For example, AHRQ reports that “rates of acute renal failure, shock, mechanical ventilation use and sepsis at delivery all more than doubled during the 10-year period,” while other complications saw increases that were far less significant. Critically, AHRQ’s data also identifies a number of socioeconomic and racial disparities:
While there are a number of plausible explanations (though no justifications) for these figures, AHRQ’s response to the data points to medical negligence as a primary factor. Specifically, in an effort to reduce the rate of severe complications for women during childbirth, AHRQ implemented a new program focused on, “improv[ing] communication and the quality of care of labor and delivery units to reduce maternal morbidity and neonatal adverse events.” In most cases, severe maternal complications during pregnancy, labor, and delivery can be avoided with appropriate medical care. The failure to provide appropriate care is a form of medical negligence and malpractice for which hospitals and doctors can – and should – be held legally accountable.
Maternal complications resulting from malpractice during pregnancy, labor, and delivery can take many different forms. Based on information from AHRQ, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and various other sources, some of the most common examples of these complications include:
For expecting mothers, acute renal failure, or kidney failure, can result from factors both related and unrelated to their pregnancy. Kidney failure can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening if not treated promptly, and it can have negative consequences for the fetus as well.
During pregnancy, the most common cause of acute renal failure is inadequate blood flow to the kidneys. This can result from medical mistakes including, but not limited to, failure to diagnose maternal risk factors and failure to diagnose other complications during pregnancy.
Birth trauma is a general term that encompasses multiple forms of traumatic injuries sustained during childbirth. This includes injuries such as vaginal tears, postpartum hemorrhage, perineal nerve damage, and trauma from errors during cesarean section (C-section) deliveries. In addition to errors during emergency C-sections, common forms of malpractice that can cause maternal birth trauma include improper use of forceps, use of excessive force during delivery, and failure to diagnose risks for maternal birth trauma.
Hypertension is another common maternal complication that can also potentially have severe consequences for the mother and the child. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
“Women who have high blood pressure before they get pregnant will continue to have to monitor and control it, with medications if necessary, throughout their pregnancy. High blood pressure that develops in pregnancy is called gestational hypertension. Typically, gestational hypertension occurs during the second half of pregnancy and goes away after delivery.”
For the mother, the potential consequences of hypertension during pregnancy include kidney damage, preeclampsia and eclampsia, and increased risk for heart disease in the future. Medical mistakes that can lead to untreated hypertension during pregnancy include failure to address maternal risk factors such as being overweight or age 40 or older, failure to perform adequate blood pressure tests, and failure to identify the warning signs of hypertension in the mother or the fetus.
Gestational diabetes is a condition caused by hormonal changes during pregnancy that prevents the body from processing glucose as it does normally. This buildup of glucose results in high blood pressure which, while manageable, can potentially lead to long-term complications for the mother. Gestational diabetes can also lead to macrosomia (having a baby who is significantly larger than normal), and this carries its own set of risks for both the mother and the child.
During pregnancy, the mother’s doctor should carefully monitor for signs of high blood sugar. If a risk for gestational diabetes is identified, the mother’s doctor should generally prescribe a blood sugar medication. Failure to diagnose and to treat are two of the most common forms of malpractice linked to gestational diabetes, along with errors in addressing further complications from gestational diabetes during labor and delivery.
Hyperemesis gravidarum is a condition that is characterized by, “severe, persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy – more extreme than ‘morning sickness.’” As the CDC goes on to explain, hyperemesis gravidarum during pregnancy, “can lead to weight loss and dehydration and may require intensive treatment.”
Here too, the primary forms of malpractice, that are likely to lead to severe complications for expecting mothers, are failure to diagnose and failure to treat. This will be a common theme throughout this article. Not only are these the most common forms of malpractice resulting in severe maternal complications, but they are among the most common forms of malpractice in general. A significant percentage of all malpractice claims involve some permutation of these two mistakes, and women who believe their doctors did not perform necessary tests or otherwise missed signs of hyperemesis gravidarum (or other pregnancy-related complications) should consult with a malpractice attorney promptly.
Loss of pregnancy will sometimes be unavoidable due to natural complications arising during a fetus’s gestation. However, sadly, mothers can also lose their pregnancies due to malpractice. Untimely diagnosis of maternal and fetal complications such as infections, illnesses, and developmental abnormalities can lead to miscarriage, as can failure to appropriately address hormonal issues, improper administration of medications during pregnancy, and various other medical mistakes.
Toxoplasmosis, chorioamnionitis, urinary tract infections (UTI), and other bacterial infections can present particular risks during pregnancy and childbirth. However, complications from these (and other) infections can also be prevented in many cases with appropriate medical care. If you suffered from infection during your pregnancy, and if you or your child is now facing the potential for serious or long-term complications as a result, you owe it to yourself to speak with a malpractice attorney about filing a claim for just compensation.
The greatest maternal risks associated with placenta previa result from the possibility of heavy bleeding during pregnancy. In the most severe cases, this can lead to shock and may even be fatal. Unfortunately, two factors combine to make failure to treat placenta previa relatively common. These are (i) the fact that placenta previa is fairly rare overall, and (ii) the fact that, in many cases, placenta previa can resolve itself without medical intervention. As a result, not only are symptoms of placenta previa frequently misdiagnosed, but doctors often fail to administer necessary treatment as well.
Maternal birth trauma, birth trauma and injuries, and other complications from childbirth can take a significant emotional toll. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is fairly common among women who experience complications during childbirth, as are depression and other mental health disorders. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD or depression, you should seek treatment from a mental health professional promptly, and you should consult with an attorney to find out if you are entitled to compensation for the financial and psychological effects of your doctor’s negligence.
As explained by NIH, “[p]reeclampsia is a serious medical condition that can lead to preterm delivery and death. Its cause is unknown, but some women are at an increased risk.” Risk factors that are associated with preeclampsia (and for which doctors should monitor prior to and during pregnancy) include hypertension, kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, and being over the age of 35.
If not treated, preeclampsia can lead to eclampsia. Characterized by the onset of seizures caused by high blood pressure, eclampsia has the potential to be fatal and should be treated as a medical emergency.
Uterine rupture and prolapsed uterus are potentially dangerous forms of birth trauma that also frequently result from diagnostic oversights and treatment mistakes during pregnancy, labor, and delivery. If a uterine rupture occurs, an emergency C-section followed by surgical repair of the uterus (or a hysterectomy, if necessary) will usually be recommended. Generally speaking, a prolapsed uterus is a less-serious complication than a uterine rupture. However, in severe cases, surgery may still be necessary.
Finally, in cases of severe maternal infections, failure to administer appropriate treatment can lead to sepsis – an infection in the bloodstream that can cause serious issues and potentially lead to death. Any time an expecting mother develops an infection during pregnancy, the risk of developing sepsis should be appropriately acknowledged and addressed, and warning signs of sepsis should be diagnosed and treated immediately.
At Berkowitz Hanna, we represent Connecticut mothers and families in malpractice claims involving childbirth injuries and other complications of childbirth. If you have questions about your family’s legal rights and would like to speak with an attorney, we encourage you to call us directly or contact us online to arrange a free and confidential consultation.