Misdiagnoses of Jaundice can Cause Brain Damage in Newborns

By: Attorney Andrew M. Rockman

In a fairly recent case, a family received a substantial recovery for their brain damaged child. The recovery was based upon the failure of the doctors to properly diagnose a condition known as "jaundice/hyperbilirubinemia" and to initiate proper treatment. Aside from the very real tragedy their error caused, the case points out the error doctors sometimes make when they underevaluate the significance of jaundice in a newborn as a benign, transient or temporary condition, needing no testing or treatment.

The reality is that this misdiagnosis and reaction can allow "icterus" or  yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes to go underappreciated, allowing it to move on to "kernicterus" and brain damage. The high levels of bilirubin in the baby's blood and tissues and the resulting yellow skin, are not always a temporary condition that simply resolves. The error is in not recognizing and dealing with the potential severity of this often common occurrence. In this particular case, the baby's skin color and feeding problems did not result in the necessary appreciation for the need for prompt billirubin testing and, sometimes, an exchange transfusion.

The tragedy is that the "kernicterus" is easily prevented. When the baby demonstrates jaundice, or yellowing of the skin, the doctor must know the baby needs treatment to avoid the seriousness of what happens when it is not. The billirubin, a yellow chemical produced in the blood travels to the liver where a chemical reaction is supposed to take place to remove it.

Sometimes the liver can't remove enough billirubin and the amount increases, traveling throughout the body. If not treated, it can cause damage to the baby's brain if it is allowed to stay in the body for too long.

 An informed parent can be an important factor in helping to protect a baby.

About the Author

Medical malpractice attorney, Andrew Rockman, is a partner with Pellettieri, Rabstein and Altman who has been representing injured plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases in New Jersey for more than thirty years. 


Learn more about Medical Malpractice Law

Legal Resources:
Articles Glossary