Lack of physician-patient communication as a key factor associated with malpractice litigation in neonatal brachial plexus palsy

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  • 1 School of Medicine, Wayne State University, Detroit; and
  • 2 Departments of Neurosurgery and
  • 3 Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
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Object

Perinatal disorders are prone to malpractice litigation. Neonatal brachial plexus palsy (NBPP) results from stretching the nerves in the perinatal period and may lead to paresis or paralysis and sensory loss in the affected arm. Little is known about the key factors associated with malpractice litigation by families of patients with NBPP and whether these factors reflect the practice environment or are inherent to the condition. In this study, the authors documented the percentage of families of NBPP patients at a specialty center that had filed a malpractice suit and described the key factors associated with that pursuit of legal action.

Methods

The families/caregivers of 51 patients with NBPP who had presented to the University of Michigan Interdisciplinary Brachial Plexus Program participated in this study. A qualitative research design was applied using both a questionnaire to examine psychosocial factors and a dynamic tool to measure health outcomes from the patient perspective via parent proxy (Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System [PROMIS] assessment instruments). Statistical analysis included the Fisher exact test, chi-square test, and Student t-test. The study protocol was approved by the University of Michigan institutional review board.

Results

Forty-seven percent of the families pursued malpractice litigation. In comparing patient families that had pursued legal action with those that had not, significant differences were revealed in the perception that the sustained birth injury was unnecessary (p = 0.002), the information received in the perinatal period was inadequate (p = 0.003), family concerns were ignored in the perinatal period (p = 0.005), and family concerns were not adequately addressed (p < 0.001). Sixty-six percent of the families received external advice to pursue legal action. The PROMIS survey revealed significant group differences in depressive symptoms (p = 0.008), fatigue (p = 0.02), pain (p = 0.01), and anger (p = 0.004). In contrast, the extent of NBPP was not associated with malpractice litigation (p = 0.18). Age, sex, and race were not significantly different between litigation and nonlitigation groups.

Conclusions

Physician-controllable factors, such as communication in the perinatal period, are associated with malpractice litigation in NBPP. The perceived level of global disability may affect the pursuit of malpractice litigation, whereas the isolated extent of nerve root involvement and/or upper extremity dysfunction are not significant factors in pursuing litigation. Identifying and ameliorating these factors within the practice environment may decrease the animosity between families and health care providers and improve overall outcome for patients with NBPP.

Abbreviations used in this paper:NBPP = neonatal brachial plexus palsy; PROMIS = Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System; SES = socioeconomic status.

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Contributor Notes

Address correspondence to: Lynda J. S. Yang, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Neurosurgery, University of Michigan, 1500 E. Medical Center Dr., Room 3552 TC, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-5338. email: ljsyang@med.umich.edu.

Please include this information when citing this paper: published online December 13, 2013; DOI: 10.3171/2013.11.PEDS13268.

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