Shoulder Dystocia and the Duty of Informed Consent

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Shoulder Dystocia and the Duty of Informed Consent


Initially published in Medical Malpractice  Law and Strategy Vol. 29, Number 6, March 1, 2012

Shoulder dystocia is a birth complicated by a failure to deliver the fetal shoulders through gentle downward traction on the fetal head. It poses an obstetric emergency, and is associated with brachial plexus injuries, fractures of the clavicle and humerus, and in some severe cases, hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy and even death.

Shoulder dystocia can occur when there is impaction of either: 1) the anterior fetal shoulder behind the maternal pubis symphysis; or 2) the posterior fetal shoulder on the sacral promontory. Fetal macrosomia (a.k.a. “big baby syndrome”) and maternal diabetes increase the risk of encountering shoulder dystocia during a delivery. In addition, other antepartum conditions can also forecast that a delivery is at an increased risk for shoulder dystocia, including maternal obesity, multiparity, post-term gestation, previous history of a macrosomic birth and a previous history of shoulder dystocia.

With this array of possible indicators for shoulder dystocia, when must the physician bring the possibility of this complication to the patient’s attention in order to obtain informed consent for or against induced labor or cesarean section?

ACOG Guidance Insufficient

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) offers some guidance concerning the duty of the physician to obtain informed consent from a patient at risk of a delivery completed by shoulder dystocia. ACOG takes the position that “planned cesarean delivery to prevent shoulder dystocia may be considered for fetal macrosomia with estimated fetal weights exceeding 5000 grams in women without diabetes [11 lb .36 oz] and 4,500 grams [9lb 14.73 oz] in women with diabetes.” Robert J. Sokol et al., ACOG Practice Bull. No. 40: Shoulder Dystocia, Compendium of Selected Publications, 682-687 (2002) (replaces Practice Pattern No. 7, Oct. 1997). Id. at 684. ACOG’s position about when it is appropriate for a physician to consider offering an expectant mother the option of a cesarean section when there is a diagnosis of fetal macrosomia seems overly rigid. First, ACOG concedes that ultrasonogaphy is not always an accurate predictor of macrosomia. Id. at 683. Second, while ACOG has suggested that a baseline level weight should be used to trigger when it is acceptable to consider a cesarean section due to a suspicion of macrosomia, the organization simultaneously recommends that when a mother has a prior history of encountering shoulder dystocia during labor and delivery, several factors need to be taken into consideration when discussing the risks and benefits of an elective cesarean section with the patient, including estimated fetal weight, gestational age, maternal glucose intolerance and the severity of the prior neonatal injury.

Issues of logical consistency aside, it would be a mistake to conclude that ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 40 sets forth the standard of care regarding when it is appropriate to discuss a planned cesarean section with an expectant mother in the face of evidence suggesting an increased risk of encountering shoulder dystocia during a delivery. A physician’s duty of informed consent is governed by state law, and different states have different legal requirements about how this obligation must be fulfilled. Moreover, common law and statutory law governing a physician’s duty of informed consent can evolve and change.

Consider State Law

State law is not uniform regarding what a physician must do to meet his or her obligation of informed consent. First, some states hold that a doctor’s duty of informed consent involves only disclosure of risks that are customarily disclosed by physicians. Laurent B. Frantz, Annotation, Modern Status of Views as to General Measure of Physician’s Duty to Inform Patient of Risks of Proposed Treatment, 88 A.L.R. 3d 1008 (1978). Arkansas is a state that follows this approach. It has a statute that requires a plaintiff alleging a breach of a duty of informed consent to prove that the information the doctor failed to provide “would customarily have been given to a patient” in the plaintiff’s circumstances “by other medical care providers with similar training and experience” and “in the locality in which the medical care provider practices or in a similar locality.” A.C.A. § 16-114-206.

Other states take the position that a substantial risk must be disclosed to a patient in order for a physician to meet his duty of informed consent, unless the physician can demonstrate that there is either a local or a national standard that suggests that nondisclosure is appropriate. This second standard was used by the Colorado Court of Appeals in Stauffer v. Karabin, 492 P2d 862, 865 (Colo. App. 1971).

A third view is that a doctor’s duty of informed consent is measured by what a reasonable physician would disclose in similar circumstances. This is the approach the Supreme Court of Kansas took in Natanson v. Kline, 350 P.2d 1093, 1106 (1960).

The first three views regarding a doctor’s duty of informed consent have been characterized as the “traditional” or the “professional” standard formulation of a doctor’s duty of informed consent. D. Louisell and H. Williams, Medical Malpractice § 22.08 at 22-23 (1987). The “professional” standard “rests on the belief that a physician, and only a physician can effectively estimate both the psychological and physical consequences the risk inherent in a medical procedure might produce [in] a patient.” Largey v. Rothman, 110 N.J. 204, 210 (1988).

In 1972, a new standard of disclosure for informed consent was established by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the case of Canterbury v. Spence, 464 F.2d 772 (D.C.Cir.), cert. den., 409 U.S. 1064 (1972). Under this fourth view of informed consent, the scope of the information a physician is required to disclose is measured by “the patient’s need for information material to his decision whether to accept or reject a course the proposed treatment.” This fourth standard of informed consent is known as the “prudent patient” or “materiality of risk” standard. Under this view, for a physician to meet his duty of informed consent, he must disclose all information that is material to a patient’s decision. Canterbury, supra, at 786-787. A risk is material “when a reasonable patient, in what the physician knows or should know to be the patient’s position, would be ‘likely to attach significance to the risk or cluster of risks’ in deciding whether to forego the proposed therapy or to submit to it.” Largey, supra, at 211-212 (quoting Canterbury, supra, at 787).


In those jurisdictions adapting the “traditional” or “professional” standard formulation of the duty of informed consent, ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 40 could certainly influence an analysis of the amount of information and options a physician is required to offer to an expectant mother when there is antepartum evidence suggesting an increased risk of shoulder dystocia. Nevertheless, jurisdictions that have adopted the more modern “prudent patient” or “materiality of risk” standard of informed consent reject the notion that a physician’s obligation to provide information is limited to what is disclosed under the customs and practices of the medical profession. Consequently, it would be prudent for obstetricians to look beyond ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 40 and examine their states’ legal requirements regarding the duty of informed consent when making office policy decisions about when to speak to patients about planned cesarean delivery in the face of antepartum evidence suggesting an increased risk of shoulder dystocia during delivery.


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