A closer look at birth malpractice cases

Everybody knows that obstetricians are one of the most-sued medical specialties, but nailing down the details on that truism can be difficult.

CRICO Strategies, an international firm that provides risk-management software to hospitals and insurances companies, last month released a "benchmarking report" on malpractice risks in obstetrics that helps fill out that sketchy picture.

The report looked at 800 obstetrics-related medical-liability suits filed between 2005 and 2009.

Families dealing with the death of a mother or child, a severely damaged infant, or some other effect of a childbirth gone awry most commonly charged "communication failures, judgment lapses, and faulty technique as the reasons behind their injuries and their malpractice cases," the report states.

Sixty-five percent of cases involved "high-severity injuries."

Across the board, about one in 1,000 births involves a "preventable adverse outcome," the report noted.

While those can occur throughout pregnancy and birth, most suits in the study concerned allegations that birth assistants had mismanaged labor and delivery, particularly the second stage of labor — the actual birth.

"Substandard clinical judgment" was the top complaint in the suits, accounting for 77 percent of claims. Most of the suits named an attending physician.

The most common reason for suing was "birth asphyxia," a potentially injurious lack of oxygen, which accounted for 27 percent of the suits, and the most common allegation was that of a "delay in treatment of fetal distress" (25 percent of claims involving small hospitals, 19 percent involving large ones).