Delay in Diagnosing and Treating Retinopathy of Prematurity: A Case of Medical Malpractice

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When it comes to the delicate health of premature infants, every second counts. A delayed diagnosis or mistreatment can have life-altering consequences for the baby and their family. One such condition that requires prompt attention is Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). Regrettably, not all medical professionals act with the urgency or care that they should, leading to potential cases of medical malpractice.

What is Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP)?

ROP is a disease that affects the retinas of premature infants. It primarily concerns the abnormal growth of blood vessels in the retina. While some cases can resolve on their own without causing any harm, more severe instances can lead to retinal detachment, causing blindness.

Premature babies are more at risk for ROP due to the retina not being fully developed when they are born. Typically, the retina continues to develop during the last 12 weeks of pregnancy. If a baby is born prematurely, blood vessel growth in the retina can go awry, leading to ROP.

How Common is Retinopathy of Prematurity?

The incidence of ROP varies widely depending on the maturity of the infant at birth, the quality of neonatal care, and geographical location. Here’s a breakdown of its occurrence:

  • Gestational Age and Birth Weight: The incidence of ROP is inversely proportional to the gestational age and birth weight of the infant. In other words, the more premature and lighter the baby, the higher the risk of developing ROP. Infants born before 28 weeks of gestation or weighing less than 1,250 grams are at the highest risk.
  • Developed vs. Developing Countries: The incidence rate of ROP varies between developed and developing countries. While advanced neonatal care in developed countries has significantly reduced the rate of severe ROP leading to blindness, the situation is different in many developing countries. As neonatal care improves in these countries, more premature babies survive, but they may not always receive timely or adequate screening and treatment for ROP. This scenario has led to an increase in the number of babies with ROP in some developing nations, a phenomenon often referred to as the “third epidemic” of ROP.
  • Specific Numbers: As of my last update in September 2021:
    • In the United States, the incidence of any stage ROP was around 65-68% in infants weighing less than 1,250 grams at birth. However, severe ROP that requires treatment occurs in only about 6% of these infants.
    • In middle-income countries like India and Brazil, where neonatal care is rapidly improving but ROP screening and treatment infrastructure might not be as developed, the incidence of ROP can be much higher, and more babies are at risk of blindness.
  • Factors Reducing Incidence: It’s worth noting that some factors can decrease the risk of ROP or its progression. Proper oxygen management in the neonatal intensive care unit, timely screening, and appropriate treatment can significantly reduce the risk of severe ROP and its complications.
  • Ongoing Changes: The incidence rate and demographics of ROP continue to evolve with advancements in neonatal care, changes in clinical practices, and socioeconomic factors. It’s essential to refer to the latest literature or health organizations for current statistics.

The Importance of Timely Diagnosis and Treatment

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for managing ROP and preventing potential blindness. All premature infants, especially those born before 30 weeks or weighing less than 1500 grams, should undergo a retinal examination within the first month of life.

Unfortunately, the medical malpractice lawyers at Lupetin & Unatin, have seen the devastating consequences due to delayed screening, diagnosis follow up, and treatment of ROP.

Doctors use specialized tools to examine the infant’s eyes and assess the stage of ROP. Depending on the severity, treatments may range from observation to laser therapy or cryotherapy, which freezes the outer layers of the retina to prevent abnormal blood vessel growth.

Medical Malpractice in the Context of ROP

Delay in diagnosing and treating ROP can be catastrophic. When medical professionals fail to screen for or adequately treat this condition in a timely manner, it can progress to more advanced stages and result in permanent vision loss or even blindness.

Medical malpractice occurs when a healthcare professional fails to provide the standard of care that a reasonably competent professional would have provided under similar circumstances. If a physician or medical staff neglects to screen, diagnose, or treat ROP appropriately and this negligence leads to harm, it may be a case of medical malpractice.

Jury Verdicts for Children Injured by Delays in Treating Retinopathy of Prematurity

There have been several notable cases where families have been awarded substantial sums due to delays or failures in diagnosing or treating ROP. Some points to consider:

  • Significant Verdicts: There have been multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in ROP-related medical malpractice lawsuits. In some cases, families have been awarded amounts ranging from $5 million to over $20 million, reflecting the severity of the harm and the lifelong challenges faced by children who have become blind or severely vision-impaired due to ROP.
  • $15 million Verdict for Twin Babies Blinded by ROP: In one case, premature twins were born at 30 weeks and screened for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) in the hospital. Twin B was found to have Stage I ROP, with a recommendation for a repeat evaluation in two weeks. Upon discharge, a neonatologist informed the twins’ pediatrician about their health status, and an ophthalmic appointment was set. However, due to various complications and scheduling issues including insurance authorization issues, the twins did not receive timely follow-up ophthalmic care. By J6 months of age both had become blind due to the progression of ROP.  The case proceeded to trial and resulted in a $15 million verdict in favor of the twins.
  • Basis for Claims: The most common reasons for ROP medical malpractice lawsuits are:
    • Failure to conduct timely ROP screenings, even when infants are clearly at risk.
    • Failure to correctly diagnose ROP when it is present.
    • Failure to refer the infant to a specialist for treatment.
    • Mismanagement of oxygen therapy, a factor that can exacerbate the development of ROP.
  • Lifetime Costs: The high verdict amounts often reflect the lifelong costs associated with vision impairment or blindness, including medical expenses, specialized education, loss of potential earnings, and non-economic damages like pain and suffering.

Do Doctors and Hospitals Ever Settle ROP Malpractice Lawsuits?

Yes.  Most medical malpractice lawsuits, including cases involving failures to diagnose and treat retinopathy of prematurity settle out of court. While the settlement amount may be less than what a jury might award, a settlement provides certainty and avoids the risk of a defense verdict or verdict for a low amount of money that will not properly provide for the injured child.  A medical malpractice lawyer experienced in handling ROP delayed diagnosis lawsuits will be able to explain to you the respective risks of settlement versus trial.

Pursuing a Medical Malpractice Claim

If you believe your child has suffered due to a delay in ROP diagnosis or treatment, it’s vital to consult with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. They can assess the specifics of your case, gather necessary medical records, consult with medical experts, and guide you through the legal process.

Your child deserves the best possible chance at a healthy life or at least the medical care and support to provide the best life possible. When medical professionals fall short of their obligations, holding them accountable is not only a means of seeking justice for your child but also helps prevent future negligence, ensuring that other families do not endure the same hardships.

At Lupetin & Unatin, we understand the profound impact that medical negligence can have on a family. We’re committed to fighting for the rights of those harmed by delayed diagnosis or mistreatment of Retinopathy of Prematurity. If you have concerns about your child’s care, please reach out to us for a free consultation.

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