From the moment of conception, babies require careful attention. Fortunately, technology allows doctors to keep a watchful eye on fetal development, including signs of a growing baby’s cardiologic health.
Of course, pregnant mothers need medical attention too. Just as doctors search for the baby’s vital signs, they also monitor mothers’ blood pressure, heart rate, and nutrient levels throughout pregnancy.
A healthy heart rate is especially important during labor and delivery. Electronic Fetal Monitoring (EFM) allows hospitals to monitor a baby’s heart rate in the womb to catch arrhythmias or any other signs of fetal distress. EFM also helps doctors detect inadequate fetal oxygen and blood supply, which could quickly cause brain injury or fetal demise if not caught. 85% of all labors in the US are electronically monitored.
Electronic Fetal Monitoring, when carried out carefully, can prevent catastrophic birth injury. Sometimes, though, machines make mistakes.
Electronic Fetal Monitoring Error
Electronic Fetal Monitoring works by positioning a monitoring device around the mother’s abdomen. The device tunes in to the baby’s heart rate and issues a continual report on the fetal pulse. Almost all electronic monitors currently use ultrasound to detect movement in blood vessels and convert that into heart rate. So the ultrasound can pick up the mother’s HR as well as the baby’s.
When the baby moves or the baby’s HR becomes weaker because the baby is in distress, sometimes the monitor locks onto the mother’s heart rate instead of the baby’s. The doctors and nurses can then be fooled into thinking the baby is fine when it is actually in trouble. This confusion of the mothers HR for the baby’s HR usually takes place when the mother is pushing. When a mother pushes, her HR can get as high as the typical heart rate of an unborn baby.
The danger, then, is that the doctors and nurses will see a healthy heart rate and assume the baby is fine when they’re really only monitoring the mom. Inside the womb or the birth canal, the infant could be struggling to survive oxygen deprivation to the brain from a lack of adequate blood supply and oxygen. But because the doctors and nurses don’t know this, they do not quickly deliver the baby in time to avoid its death or brain damage.
Preventing Confusion Caused by EFM Error
Some manufacturers have addressed this common problem by always monitoring both the mother’s and baby’s HR so that there can be little or no chance of confusion; others have not. Until this problem is solved by all manufacturers, health care providers must carefully watch for it.
To avoid confusing maternal heart rate and fetal heart rate, doctors and nurses should periodically monitor both patients individually and routinely check for error. It is critical that all healthcare practitioners understand the common risk of EFM error from the outset. Despite knowledge by health care providers that this can occur, there is general unawareness how frequently and deceptively this can occur particularly during the second stage of labor.
Fortunately, correcting an errant EFM is easy. Simply readjusting the monitor until it picks up on the fetal heart rate is usually effective. If that doesn’t work, an electrode can be placed on the baby’s scalp to make sure its HR is being recorded. Correcting this potentially deadly machine error requires diligent attention from the medical nursing experts in the room.
A Birth Injury Attorney Can Help
If you or your child has been injured by an Electronic Fetal Monitoring error, you may be entitled to compensation pursuant to Washington medical malpractice law. To schedule a free consultation with an experienced birth injury attorney, please contact Luvera Law Firm right away.