Expert Commentary

A survey of liability claims against obstetric providers highlights major areas of contention

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Communication breakdowns and treatment delays are frequent sources of malpractice claims



An analysis of 882 obstetric claims closed between 2007 and 2014 highlighted 3 common patient allegations:

  • a delay in treatment of fetal distress (22%). The term fetal distress remains a common allegation in malpractice claims. Cases in this category most often reflected a delay or failure to act in the face of Category II or III fetal heart-rate tracings.
  • improper performance of vaginal delivery (20%). Almost half of the cases in this category involved brachial plexus injuries linked to shoulder dystocia. Patients alleged that improper maneuvers were used to resolve the dystocia. The remainder of cases in this category involved forceps and vacuum extraction deliveries.
  • improper management of pregnancy (17%). Among the allegations were a failure to test for fetal abnormalities, failure to recognize complications of pregnancy, and failure to address abnormal findings.

Together, these 3 allegations accounted for 59% of claims. Other allegations included diagnosis-related claims, delay in delivery, improper performance of operative delivery, retained foreign bodies, and improper choice of delivery method.1

The Obstetrics Closed Claims Study findings were released earlier this spring by the Napa, California−based Doctors Company, the nation’s largest physician-owned medical malpractice insurer.1 Susan Mann, MD, a spokesperson for the company, provided expert commentary on the study at the 2015 Annual Clinical Meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in San Francisco. (Listen to this accompanying audiocast featuring her comments.) Dr. Mann practices obstetrics and gynecology in Brookline, Massachusetts, and at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She is president of the QualBridge Institute, a consulting firm focused on issues of quality and safety.

Top 7 factors contributing to patient injury
The Doctors Company identified specific factors that contributed to patient injury in the closed claims:

1. Selection and management of therapy (34%). Among the issues here were decisions involving augmentation of labor, route of delivery, and the timing of interventions. This factor also related to medications—for example, a failure to order antibiotics for Group A and Group B strep, a failure to order Rho(D) immune globulin for Rh-negative mothers, and a failure to provide magnesium sulfate for women with eclampsia.
2. Patient-assessment issues (32%). The Doctors Company reviewers found that physicians frequently failed to consider information that was available, or overlooked abnormal findings.
3. Technical performance (18%). This factor involved problems associated with known risks of various procedures, such as postpartum hemorrhage and brachial plexus injuries. It also included poor technique.
4. Communication among providers (17%)
5. Patient factors (16%). These factors included a failure to comply with therapy or to show up for appointments.
6. Insufficient or lack of documentation (14%)
7. Communication between patient/family and provider (14%).

“Studying obstetrical medical malpractice claims sheds light on the wide array of problems that may arise during pregnancy and in labor and delivery,” the study authors conclude. “Many of these cases reflect unusual maternal or neonatal conditions that can be diagnosed only with vigilance. Examples include protein deficiencies, clotting abnormalities, placental abruptions, infections, and genetic abnormalities. More common conditions should be identified with close attention to vital signs, laboratory studies, changes to maternal and neonatal conditions, and patient complaints.”

“Obstetric departments must plan for clinical emergencies by developing and maintaining physician and staff competencies through mock drills and simulations that reduce the likelihood of injuries to mothers and their infants,” the study authors conclude.

Tips for reducing malpractice claims in obstetrics
The Obstetrics Closed Claim Study identified a number of “underlying vulnerabilities” that place patients at risk and increase liability for clinicians. The Doctors Company offers the following tips to help reduce these claims:
• Require periodic training and certification for physicians and nurses to maintain competency and facilitate conversations about fetal heart-rate (FHR) tracing interpretation. Both parties should use the same terminology when discussing the strips.
• Use technology that allows physicians to review FHR patterns from remote locations so that physicians and nurses are able to see the same information when discussing next steps.
• When operative vaginal delivery is attempted in the face of a Category III FHR tracing, a contingency team should be available for possible emergent cesarean delivery.
• Foster a culture in which caregivers feel comfortable speaking up if they have a concern. Ensure that the organization has a well-defined escalation guideline.

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