Sound strategies to avoid malpractice hazards on labor and delivery
Martin L. Gimovsky, MD, and Alexis C. Gimovsky, MD
CASE 1: Pregestational diabetes, large baby, birth injury
A 31-year-old gravida 1 is admitted to labor and delivery. She is at 39-5/7 weeks’ gestation, dated by last menstrual period and early sonogram. The woman is a pregestational diabetic and uses insulin to control her blood glucose level.
Three weeks before admission, ultrasonography (US) revealed an estimated fetal weight of 3,650 g—at the 71st percentile for gestational age.
After an unremarkable course of labor, delivery is complicated by severe shoulder dystocia. The newborn has a birth weight of 4,985 g and sustains an Erb’s palsy-type injury. The mother develops a rectovaginal fistula after a fourth-degree tear.
In the first part of this article, we discussed how an allegation of malpractice can arise because of an unexpected event or outcome for a mother in your care, or her baby, apart from any specific clinical action you undertook. We offered an example: Counseling that you provide about options for prenatal care that falls short of full understanding by the patient.
In this article, we enter the realm of the hands-on practice of medicine and discuss causation: namely, the actions of a physician, in the course of managing labor and delivering a baby, that put that physician at risk of a charge of malpractice because the medical care 1) is inconsistent with current medical practice and thus 2) harmed mother or newborn.
Let’s return to the opening case above and discuss key considerations for the physician. Three more cases follow that, with analysis and recommendations.
Considerations in CASE 1
- A woman who has pregestational diabetes should receive ongoing counseling about the risks of fetal anomalies, macrosomia, and problems in the neonatal period. Be certain that she understands that these risks can be ameliorated, but not eliminated, with careful blood glucose control.
- The fetus of a diabetic gravida develops a relative decrease in the ratio of head circumference-to-abdominal circumference that predisposes it to shoulder dystocia. Cesarean delivery can decrease, but not eliminate, the risk of traumatic birth injury in a diabetic mother. (Of course, cesarean delivery will, on its own, substantially increase the risk of maternal morbidity—including at any subsequent cesarean delivery.)
What do they mean? terms and concepts intended to bolster your work and protect you
It’s not easy to define what constitutes “best care” in a given clinical circumstance. Generalizations are useful, but they may possess an inherent weakness: “Best practices,” “evidence-based care,” “standardization of care,” and “uniformity of care” usually apply more usefully to populations than individuals.
Such concepts derive from broader applications in economics, politics, and science. They are useful to define a reasonable spectrum of anticipated practices, and they certainly have an expanding role in the care of patients and in medical education (TABLE). Clinical guidelines serve as strategies that may be very helpful to the clinician. All of us understand and implement appropriate care in the great majority of clinical scenarios, but none of us are, or can be, expert in all situations. Referencing and using guidelines can fill a need for a functional starting point when expertise is lacking or falls short.
Best practices result from evidence-directed decision-making. This concept logically yields a desirable uniformity of practice. Although we all believe that our experience is our best teacher, we may best serve patients if we sample knowledge and wisdom from controlled clinical trials and from the experiences of others. What is accepted local practice must also be considered important when you devise a plan of care.1,2
A selected glossary of clinical care guidelines
|Term||What does it mean?|
|“Best practice”||A process or activity that is believed to be more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other when applied to a particular condition or circumstance. The idea? With proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer problems and unforeseen complications than otherwise possible.5|
|“Evidence-based care”||The best available process or activity arising from both 1) individual expertise and 2) best external evidence derived from systematic research.6|
|“Standard of care”||A clinical practice to maximize success and minimize risk, applied to professional decision-making.7|
|“Uniformity of practice”||Use of systematic, literature-based research findings to develop an approach that is efficacious and safe; that maximizes benefit; and that minimizes risk.8|
Consider the management of breech presentation that is recognized at the 36th week antepartum visit: Discussion with the patient should include 1) reference to concerns with congenital anomalies and genetic syndromes, 2) in-utero growth and development, and 3) the delivery process. The management algorithm may include external cephalic version, elective cesarean delivery before onset of labor, or cesarean delivery after onset of labor. Each approach has advocates—based on expert opinion clinical trials.