As we tick down the days to the end of the month, give yourself a pat on the back — it’s almost the end of July and you’re still here!
But don’t think that’s meant to be facetious. As new evidence suggests, you may be wise to avoid hospitals during this summer month. The data comes from a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Diego, which looked into more than 62 million death certificates filed in the United States between 1979 and 2006. From those, they were able to identify 244,388 cases of death occurring as a result of medication errors in a hospital.
Now, here’s where things get scary… Going month by month, the statistics revealed relatively even odds of being the victim of a fatal medication error — except in counties with teaching hospitals during the month of July. These counties experienced a 10% spike in medication deaths during this summer month, while counties with no teaching hospitals experienced no similar increases.
The July Effect
Anecdotal evidence has always pointed to a “July Effect,” or, an uptick in medical errors caused by inexperienced medical residents joining the ranks of teaching hospital MDs. These “wet behind the ears” doctors were believed to be less confident in their skills and more prone to errors — and now, research appears to give credence to what was previously believed to be just a medical urban legend.
According to David Phillips, the lead author of the study, “If you have people dying from medication deaths and nobody thinks there is an error, that doesn’t spike in July. So there’s something going on in teaching hospitals in July, and the most common thing people think of was residents starting.”
To be as accurate as possible, Phillips’ study ruled out medication-related deaths caused by unanticipated allergic reactions, as well as medical deaths that happened outside of the hospital (which are more likely to be caused by patient error — particularly, the mixing of drugs and alcohol). And yet, the peak of deaths caused by fatal medication error at areas with teaching hospitals during the month of July persisted.
Of course, not all medical professionals agree with the findings of Phillips’ study. Dr. Joanne Conroy, chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges posits that the implementation of new patient protection policies in the last five years makes looking at data from 1979-2006 irrelevant. Dr. Cory Franklin, director emeritus of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital also suggests that things may not be so cut-and-dried, saying: “Compared with winter months, surgical services in July tend to have sicker patients because of more trauma, and medical services have fewer sick patients because of reduced incidence of respiratory problems.”
That said, if you do wind up in the hospital in the month of July, it’s better to be safe than sorry! Be an informed patient by tracking the medications you’re being given and asking questions (or, ask a trusted friend or relative to act as your advocate if you’re unable to do so yourself). Never be afraid to speak up if you see or hear something questionable. As Phillips’ study suggests, your life may depend on it!