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What Is Jaundice and Kernicterus?

Jun 26th, 2023  |  Legal Team  |  Firm News

Jaundice and its severe complication, kernicterus, are medical conditions that can have devastating consequences, particularly for newborns. 

Understanding Jaundice

Jaundice is a condition characterized by yellow discoloration of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. It occurs when there is an excess of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during the breakdown of red blood cells, in the bloodstream. Normally, the liver processes bilirubin and eliminates it from the body through bile. However, if the liver is unable to process bilirubin efficiently, jaundice can develop.

Newborns are particularly vulnerable to jaundice due to their immature liver function. Physiological jaundice is a common and usually harmless condition that affects over half of newborns. It typically appears within a few days of birth and resolves on its own within a couple of weeks. However, certain cases of jaundice require prompt medical attention to prevent complications such as kernicterus.

Understanding Kernicterus

Kernicterus is a rare but severe complication that can arise from untreated or poorly managed jaundice in newborns. It occurs when excessive levels of unconjugated bilirubin cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain, causing neurological damage. The resulting brain damage can have long-lasting and often irreversible consequences.

The signs and symptoms of kernicterus may include:

  • High-pitched crying
  • Poor feeding and sucking
  • Lethargy or decreased activity
  • Muscle stiffness or poor muscle tone (hypotonia)
  • Seizures
  • Hearing loss
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Movement disorders

The Role of Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice becomes a critical consideration in cases involving jaundice and kernicterus when negligence or inadequate care by healthcare providers leads to harm. Several factors may indicate potential medical malpractice:

Failure to Recognize and Treat Jaundice

Healthcare professionals are responsible for closely monitoring newborns’ bilirubin levels and promptly identifying and managing significant jaundice. Failure to recognize the signs or delays in initiating appropriate treatment can increase the risk of kernicterus.

Inadequate Follow-Up Care

Premature discharge of a newborn or insufficient postnatal care and monitoring can contribute to the development of kernicterus. Healthcare providers should ensure that parents receive clear instructions on how to monitor their baby’s jaundice at home and when to seek medical attention.

Negligent Treatment

If healthcare professionals fail to implement appropriate interventions to manage high bilirubin levels, such as phototherapy or exchange transfusions, they may be deemed negligent and held liable for the resulting complications.

Pursuing a Medical Malpractice Claim

The families of newborns affected by preventable jaundice-related complications have the right to hold the negligent medical provider accountable. That way, they can secure the financial resources needed for ongoing medical care, therapy, and support and ultimately seek justice for the affected child and their family. To be successful in a medical malpractice case, several key elements generally need to be proven: 

  • Duty of Care: It must be demonstrated that a doctor-patient relationship existed, and the healthcare provider had a duty to provide a reasonable standard of care to the patient.
  • Breach of Duty: It must be proven that the healthcare provider breached their duty of care by acting negligently or failing to meet the expected standard of care. This could include inadequate monitoring, failure to diagnose jaundice, delayed treatment, improper use of treatment methods, or lack of appropriate follow-up care.
  • Causation: A direct link must be established between the healthcare provider’s breach of duty and the development of severe jaundice or kernicterus. This requires demonstrating that the negligence significantly contributed to the harm suffered by the newborn, such as the accumulation of bilirubin in the brain.
  • Damages: The plaintiff (the affected child or their parents) must provide evidence of the damages incurred as a result of the medical provider’s negligence. This can include medical expenses related to severe jaundice or kernicterus, ongoing care and therapy needs, lost income, loss of future earning potential, pain and suffering, and emotional distress.

Medical malpractice cases related to jaundice and kernicterus are complex. Having a skilled and trusted Atlanta birth injury attorney on your side is invaluable. They can guide you through the legal process, gather evidence, consult with medical experts, and build a strong case on your behalf.