A shortage in experts who can accurately diagnose fractures in babies is leading to infants being separated from their families unnecessarily.
According to reports from The Sunday Times, inexperienced radiologists are putting babies at risk by either diagnosing bone fractures in cases where none exists or overlooking harder to spot injuries. The result of a misdiagnosed bone fracture is that the families can face an investigation for child abuse. During this time, the child can be separated from their parents by a local authority until a court hears the case.
According to government data obtained by newspaper, there was a 19% increase in the number of families investigated for physical abuse of babies over the past five years, with 1,310 investigations involving suspected ‘significant harm’ of babies last year.
The Sunday Times’ Emma Dugan reports the case of a couple from Surrey whose daughter was removed from them because doctors ‘found’ two fractures inconsistent with an innocent explanation of a fall. The girl was only returned to the family when a court expert found only one fracture.
Dr Adam Oates, a consultant paediatric radiologist at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, explained that bone fractures are difficult to diagnose in children because ‘the immature bones are different and therefore things that look like fractures may not be fractures’.
There is a general shortage of radiologists in the UK, with a particular shortfall in paediatrics as an estimated 55% of vacancies in England were unfilled last year. The situation is worse in the north of the country, with Northeast England having just five consultant paediatric radiologists compared to London which has 70.
Inexperienced experts can also too readily dismiss genuine explanations for a fracture. Oates told The Times of a case where the parents’ story ‘seemed very unlikely and abuse was suspected but CCTV was subsequently found which showed a very plausible accidental cause of an injury’.
In another case, an unexplained bruise in a week-old baby led to suspicions of abuse following a scan that revealed small bleeds on the brain. After months of family separation, a court expert finally concluded that the bleeds were likely ordinary marks from birth.