When your baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), you’ll likely be provided with some information and education about how to protect your baby. These tips may include everything from ensuring that you’ve sanitized your hands before touching the child to removing jewelry and keeping your nails short and unpolished. But, no one gives you advice on how to ensure that your baby is receiving appropriate medical care.
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While it’s important to have a pediatrician and facility you trust with your baby’s care, it’s also important to recognize that medical errors happen–including in the NICU.
Medical Errors in the NICU
Medical errors can be dangerous, even fatal, in any setting. In the NICU, medical mistakes carry special risks. First, a premature infant or infant who is in the NICU for other reasons is especially vulnerable.
As the world recently learned, even feeding a fragile premature infant the wrong baby formula can have catastrophic consequences. Many babies in NICU require assistance breathing. But, mechanical ventilation can contribute to a lung disorder called bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD).
Babies in the NICU also require very close monitoring, particularly to ensure that they are breathing properly. Failure to quickly notice breathing problems and intervene appropriately can cause organ damage, including impairment of cardiac and brain function.
In short, appropriate care of infants in the NICU requires very close attention, leaves little room for error, and often requires balancing of competing concerns.
The most common types of errors in the NICU:
- Inadequate monitoring, such as for the breathing issues described above and for warning signs of infection and other issues that may quickly become very serious if they are not identified and treated
- Medication errors, most often involving failure of a nurse to administer medication or a physician prescribing the wrong dosage–in one recent study, 74.8% of newborns and preterm babies at two hospitals experienced at least one medication error
- Failure to identify and treat brain bleeds, which are more common in premature babies because their blood vessels are not fully developed
- Improper insertion of a breathing tube
- Failure to monitor and stabilize the infant’s blood sugar
Why do NICU Errors Happen?
It may seem hard to believe that medical errors in the NICU are common. Babies in neonatal intensive care are obviously in need of enhanced care, and the nurse-to-infant ratio is usually tailored to those greater needs. In some situations, a single nurse may be responsible for three or four babies, while the infants in greatest need of care may have a dedicated nurse.
Mistakes happen for many reasons, which may include:
- Negligence of a nurse, doctor, or other staff member
- Inadequate or inappropriate hospital procedures
- Miscommunication or failure to communicate, especially when the baby’s condition is changing rapidly
- Overlooking information in the patient history
Patient misidentification is a problem across all age groups in hospital settings. However, the problem can be more serious with infants because infants tend to be more physically similar, other distinguishing characteristics like voice are absent, and–most important–infants are unable to verbally confirm their identities as many hospitals require older patients to do.
These errors are especially dangerous for premature babies and other infants in the NICU, because their conditions are fragile and they are so small that relatively small deviations in medication dosages or ventilator settings can cause birth injuries or other serious harm.
Keeping Your Child Safe in the NICU
If you know in advance that your child may have special needs or complications that may require neonatal intensive care, you can get off on the right foot by researching the best hospitals in your area for neonatal care.
One way to gather some information about neonatal units in various area hospitals is to look at scorecards, such as this one created by U.S. News & World Reports for neonatal care at the Cleveland Clinic.
Of course, you won’t always be able to prepare in advance. If your baby is unexpectedly born prematurely, suffers a birth injury, or has other unanticipated problems, you’ll have to assess as you go.
NICU babies generally can be transferred to another hospital, and sometimes that will be warranted based on their special needs and the facility best equipped to manage them. But, the transport process can be hard on the baby, so this decision–like most decisions involving preterm or sick infants–requires a weighing of risks and benefits.
An expert tip from Doug Mann
The amount of time you can spend with your baby in the NICU may depend on the facility and on the infant’s condition. It’s generally a good idea to visit as frequently as possible, because spending time with your baby and seeing any day-to-day (or even hour-to-hour) changes will put you in the best position to notice if your baby is struggling in some way or has taken a turn for the worse. Ask questions and make sure you know exactly what your baby is being treated for and what signs you should be on the lookout for.
Has Your Baby Been a Victim of NICU Malpractice?
If your baby has been injured, had their hospital stay extended, or suffered the worsening of a condition due to negligence in the NICU, you may be entitled to compensation. Some harm to infants, particularly preterm infants, can have long-term or even permanent effects.
For example, certain errors in the NICU can increase the risk of a child developing cerebral palsy. And, improper management of assisted breathing can cause or aggravate respiratory issues.
Fair compensation can help you provide your child with the medical care and other assistance they need to live a full life. If you find yourself in this position, contact us to set up a free, no-obligation consultation.