Communication-related allegations against physicians caring for premature infants

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Abstract

OBJECTIVE:

Maternal-fetal medicine physicians (MFMp) and neonatal-perinatal medicine physicians (NPMp) caring for premature infants and their families are exposed to significant risk for malpractice actions. Effective communication practices have been implicated to decrease litigious intentions but the extent of miscommunication as a cause of legal action is essentially unknown in this population. Analysis of communication-related allegations (CRAs) may help toward improving patient care and physician-patient relationships as well as decrease litigation risks.

STUDY DESIGN:

We retrospectively reviewed the Westlaw database, a primary online legal research resource used by United States lawyers and legal professionals, for malpractice cases against physicians involving premature infants. Inclusion criteria were: 22 to 36 weeks gestational age, cases related to peripartum events through infant discharge and follow-up, and legal records with detailed factual narratives.

RESULTS:

The search yielded 736 legal records, of which 167 met full inclusion criteria. A CRA was identified in 29% (49/167) of included cases. MFMp and/or NPMp were named in 104 and 54 cases, respectively. CRAs were identified in 26% (27/104) and 35% (19/54) of MFMp- and NPMp-named cases, respectively, with a majority involving physician-family for both specialties (81% and 74%, respectively). Physician-family CRAs for MFMp and NPMp most often regarded lack of informed consent (50% and 57%, respectively), lack of full disclosure (41% and 29%, respectively) and lack of anticipatory guidance (36% and 21%, respectively).

CONCLUSIONS:

This study of a major legal database identifies CRAs as significant causes of legal action against MFMp and NPMp involved in the care of high-risk women and infants delivered preterm. Physicians should be especially vigilant with obtaining genuine informed consent and maintaining open communication with families.

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