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Could hospitals do more to detect brain damage after birth?

After a baby is born, most parents want to know how their child is doing. Are they breathing properly? Were there any complications? And while most parents are relieved to hear that their child was born without incident, for some parents this isn’t the case and a birth injury has occurred.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, about three out of every 1,000 babies born full-term in the United States suffer from a brain injury. Of those, nearly half suffered brain damage because they were deprived of oxygen during labor or delivery. But while this may seem like a small number, even one child born with a birth injury should be cause for concern, especially if hospital negligence was a factor.

It’s worth noting though that negligence is not the only cause of neonatal encephalopathy, which is the term used to describe brain disorders in full-term newborns. Other factors such as bleeding during pregnancy, genetic factors, and other maternal health problems can lead to oxygen deprivation and possibly even brain damage.

The distinction between brain damage caused by negligence and genetic factors is difficult to discern right now, which can prove problematic if parents decide to take legal action. But some believe that hospitals can help eliminate this problem by taking a more proactive approach. MRI scans taken at the time of birth as well as days later can help determine if there is brain damage and possibly when it occurred.

If results are abnormal on the day of birth, it’s likely that the damage happened before delivery. A normal scan the day of delivery coupled with an abnormal scan days later means that the injury likely happened during the delivery process. These scans can help determine the extent of injury too, which can help doctors provide better treatment options. It may also help parents decide whether they want to take legal action against the hospital later on.

Source: The New York Times, "Hurt Before the Birth," Jane E. Brody, May 5, 2014

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