Can Hyperbilirubinemia Be Due to Medical Malpractice?

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Understanding Kernicterus: Can Hyperbilirubinemia be due to Medical Malpractice?

The birth of a baby is perhaps every parent’s greatest moment. Parents look forward to meeting the child that they’ve waited 9 months to meet. While most births are overall seen as a joyous event, there are times when complications occur during labor and delivery or shortly after birth that can greatly overshadow this joyous moment. One example of a common complication is hyperbilirubinemia, also known as jaundice. But a common question is whether hyperbilirubinemia be due to medical malpractice in Oregon or is it normal for a baby to have this.

While jaundice is generally easily treatable, if a physician fails to identify and appropriately treat jaundice it can lead to a very serious complication known as kernicterus. Kernicterus is perhaps one of the most catastrophic birth injuries that occur and generally always is due to medical malpractice. This is when hyperbilirubinemia can be due to medical malpractice and be the result of negligence in Oregon or Minnesota.

What is Hyperbilirubinemia (Jaundice)?

When a baby is born, their liver is not always mature enough to be able to process and remove bilirubin from the bloodstream. Due to the liver not being able to remove bilirubin, the bilirubin builds up in the blood stream, causing the baby to have yellow-tinged skin, the sclera of their eyes, and tissue. As mentioned above, jaundice is fairly common. However, what is not common is the progression of hyperbilirubinema to kernicterus. It is essential that jaundice is identified and treated in a timely manner to prevent the progression of jaundice to kernicterus. 

Why Do Some Babies Experience Jaundice While Others Do Not?

While there are some babies who develop jaundice with no known risk factors, there are some risk factors that put babies at a higher risk for developing jaundice. Examples of common risk factors for developing neonatal jaundice include the following:

  • Premature birth – babies who are born before 36 weeks are at a much higher risk for developing jaundice than other babies
  • Babies of East Asian and American Indian decent are at higher risk for neonatal jaundice
  • Blood type differences – If a baby has a different blood type than their mother, they are at higher risk for developing jaundice as they may have received antibodies through the placenta, potentially causing a rapid breakdown of red blood cells
  • Babies who either receive inadequate nutrition, or who are breastfed are at a higher risk for jaundice 
  • Diabetic Mothers – Babies born to mothers who have diabetes have a higher likelihood of developing jaundice 
  • Low birth weight – Infants with a low birth rate are at a greater likelihood of developing jaundice
  • High altitudes – Babies born in an area with high altitude are at greater risk for jaundice

What is Kernicterus? 

Kernicterus is a condition that develops from jaundice. When jaundice is not treated in a timely manner, it can lead to something called acute bilirubin encephalopathy. This occurs when an excess amount of bilirubin builds up in the newborn’s body, eventually causing the bilirubin to pass into the brain. When this is not immediately treated, it can lead to kernicterus. A baby is considered to have kernicterus when permanent brain damage occurs as a result of acute bilirubin encephalopathy. 

Signs and Symptoms of Kernicterus

Jaundice should never progress to kernicterus. This is because jaundice is easily identifiable and treatable. Additionally, physicians should be well aware that jaundice is a common issue at birth and therefore every newborn should be evaluated for jaundice and if identified, should be treated appropriately. Symptoms of kernicterus include the following:

  • Irritability
  • Poor feeding
  • Lethargy
  • Apnea
  • Muscle tone changes (hypotonia)
  • Cry that is abnormally high-pitched
  • Decrease in the amount of wet diapers produced
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Muscle spasms
  • Fever
  • Seizures

How Kernicterus Can be Prevented

Can hyperbilirubinemia be due to medical malpractice all depends on several factors.  Kernicterus is an entirely preventable condition. Jaundice is as mentioned above, easily treatable. If a baby is found to have mild jaundice, close monitoring of bilirubin levels as well as more frequent feeding is usually recommended. If jaundice is more severe, light therapy is usually given to lower bilirubin levels. Phototherapy aids in the excretion of bilirubin through the urine and stools. While these treatments can easily treat jaundice, if a physician fails to identify jaundice in the first place, or fails to prescribe the above treatments mentioned, jaundice can progress to kernicterus. 

Long Term Effects of Kernicterus

Babies who suffer from kernicterus will suffer cognitive effects. Babies with kernicterus are likely to develop some or all of the following:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Speech impairment
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Developmental disabilities 
  • Difficulty with coordination
  • Athetoid cerebral palsy
  • Muscle tone abnormalities (poor muscle tone)
  • Hearing impairments
  • Vision impairments
  • Abnormal eye movements

These are just some of the many long term effects of kernicterus. The unfortunate thing is that this condition is 100% preventable. Babies with kernicterus will have special needs that will become quite costly for their families. Some babies with kernicterus may not ever be able to live independently. This is why it is essential for you to discuss your case with an experienced attorney who can discuss what types of compensation you can get for your child’s injury, so you have the money you need to provide your child the appropriate care for his unique needs from the condition. 

Medical Malpractice Related to Kernicterus

While jaundice may be a commonly occurring condition at birth, what is not common is kernicterus. Kernicterus should never occur as it is a 100% preventable condition. This condition causes catastrophic brain damage that will significantly alter the newborn’s life as well as their family’s lives. Babies with kernicterus will face many obstacles in their lives due to the condition; a condition that was inflicted by a healthcare provider. Medical malpractice causes of kernicterus include the following:

  • Failure to appropriately treat jaundice
  • Failure to diagnose jaundice
  • Failure to ensure that the baby is receiving proper nutrition prior to discharge from the hospital
  • Failure to diagnose acute bilirubin encephalopathy
  • Misinterpretation of lab results
  • Failure to test for jaundice
  • Failure to provide appropriate oversight to novice physicians, leading to jaundice being missed
  • Failure to ensure that the newborn is seen within a few days to leaving the hospital
  • Failure to diagnose kernicterus
  • Failure to identify kernicterus, believe that the baby is only suffering from jaundice, leading to a delay in appropriate treatment

Call Our Medical Malpractice Lawyer for Help to Answer Your Question Can Hyperbilirubinemia Be Due to Medical Malpractice in Oregon

If you or a loved one have been seriously injured or killed as a result of medical malpractice contact the Oregon Medical Malpractice Lawyers at Kuhlman Law at our number below or fill out the intake form.  We offer a free initial case evaluation and handle cases on a contingency fee which means that you pay no money unless we recover.

Our law firm handles cases throughout the state including Bend and Portland Oregon, Redmond, Central Oregon, Sisters, Madras, Multnomah County, Deschutes County, Salem, Eugene, Corvallis, Lane County, Medford, Gresham, La Grande, Albany, Medford, Beaverton, Umatilla, Pendleton,  Cottage Grove, Florence, Oregon City, Springfield, Keizer, Grants Pass, McMinnville, Tualatin, West Linn, Forest Grove, Wilsonville, Newberg, Roseburg, Lake Oswego, Klamath Falls, Happy Valley, Tigard, Ashland, Milwakie, Coos Bay, The Dalles,  St. Helens, Sherwood, Central Point, Canby, Troutdale, Hermiston, Silverton, Hood River, Newport, Prineville, Astoria, Tillamook, Lincoln City, Hillsboro, and Vancouver, Washington.

We also have an office in Minneapolis, Minnesota and take medical malpractice cases throughout the Twin Cities, including St. Paul, Hennepin County, Ramsey County, Dakota County, Washington County, Anoka County, Scott County, Blaine, Stillwater, and Saint Paul Minnesota.

For a free case evaluation


(541) 385-1999 in Bend, Oregon
(503) 479-3646 in Portland, Oregon
(612) 444-3374 in Minnesota

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