Neonatology is the branch of medicine dedicated to caring for infants from birth to the age of 28 days. Neonatologists specialize in the care of infants born prematurely, with birth defects, or with other problems that occur at birth or shortly thereafter. Like all physicians, neonatologists can be sued for malpractice. However, because many problems that occur in babies born prematurely or with other problems, it is often difficult to determine whether problems with the baby were the result of negligence or merely the natural consequences of the underlying condition afflicting the newborn.
There are three levels of care provided to newborns: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Not all hospitals have all three levels of care available. In fact, not all hospitals with maternity wards even have neonatologists on staff. Others only have neonatologists on duty at certain hours. Primary birth centers generally do not have a special care nursery. Secondary birth centers usually have a special care nursery that can take care of the needs of some, but not all, types of sick newborns. Tertiary care is the highest level of care available to newborns. These canters have 24-hour neonatology coverage and generally have state-of-the-art equipment to care for the sickest newborns.
One issue that arises in cases alleging neonatology malpractice is whether the child was born in the appropriate hospital. Time often does not allow a mother to give birth in the most appropriate hospital for her child’s needs. If, however, there is an indication that a baby could have problems at birth that require care by a neonatologist, liability could be imposed on the responsible parties if the baby is born in the wrong type of hospital. If the decision to have the child at a primary birth center is made by the mother’s obstetrician, the obstetrician would be liable for any resulting harm to the child. Often this decision is made in conjunction with a neonatologist from a tertiary care hospital. If a neonatologist improperly advises an obstetrician that a newborn does not need neonatology care, the neonatologist could be held liable for malpractice.
Other common claims of malpractice against neonatologists are as follows:
- Failure to properly monitor infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. Newborns in the intensive care unit require constant monitoring to regulate the vital signs, feeding, and other medical issues. Failure to monitor or failure to supervise the monitoring process can lead to liability for neonatologists.
- Failure to diagnose intestinal obstruction. Intestinal obstruction is a common problem in premature babies. The failure to identify this problem and treat it in a timely fashion can lead to liability for neonatologists.
- Failure to diagnose infection in a newborn. Infection is a common cause of death in newborns confined to an intensive care unit. Failure to identify and treat infections in newborns can lead to malpractice liability for neonatologists.