Delayed Diagnosis of Heart Defects

Some babies are born with congenital heart defects, which are problems that occur with the baby’s heart while the baby is developing in utero. These can be structural (such as a problem with a valve or a blockage) or functional (such as problems with heart rhythm). In some instances, these conditions are not diagnosed until after birth. With the advance of medical technology, in the past several decades it has become increasingly possible to diagnose many fetal anomalies, including congenital heart defects, by ultrasound while the baby is still in utero.

Certain cardiac conditions can be identified directly through ultrasound. Other findings, such as a single umbilical artery (also identifiable by ultrasound), can be suggestive of cardiac anomalies and often triggers additional investigations by the medical team. If indicated, a more specialized test called fetal echocardiography can be performed.

Early diagnosis of fetal heart defects is important as it provides an opportunity to plan appropriate management of the baby at birth, including arranging for delivery at a tertiary care centre with pediatric cardiac specialists immediately available. In some rare circumstances, it may even be possible to treat the condition while the baby remains in utero.

Over the past several decades, there have been exciting developments in the field of fetal surgery. Procedures can be performed as an open procedure (surgery is performed on the fetus after the surgical team creates an incision in the mother’s abdomen and uterus), or in some instances by minimally invasive fetoscopic surgery. Many of these procedures have become possible due to advances in ultrasound technology.

If your baby is born with a heart defect and there is any suggestion that it could have been diagnosed and/or treated in utero, an experienced obstetrical lawyer will be in a position to investigate the possibility of a malpractice claim. This will involve a detailed review of the medical records, ultrasounds and any other diagnostic imaging performed, as well as expert consultation with specialists such as pediatric cardiologists, radiologists, and obstetricians. The experts will consider the nature of the cardiac condition and whether or not it should be have been diagnosed prior to birth. Expert opinion will also be sought as to whether or not it may have been possible to treat the condition prior to birth, or whether the delivery and post-natal care was handled appropriately.

In other instances, if the cardiac condition is not treatable and will cause serious lifelong disability for your child, your lawyer may discuss with you the possibility of a lawsuit alleging “wrongful birth”. These are complicated legal and medical issues that require careful analysis by an experienced obstetrical lawyer who has access to the best qualified experts to determine whether a possible claim exists.