As you celebrate your summer, it can be easy to fall into “vacation mode” and grow lax on your health. I’m here to tell you that you should be extra vigilant in taking care of yourself this month and here’s why.
Every July, brand new residents start working in the hospital after graduating from medical school 4-6 weeks earlier. Their inexperience may contribute to the 10% spike in hospital fatalities from medication errors during the month of July. It may also contribute to patient suffering, which Theresa Brown, an oncology nurse, describes in her reasons why you shouldn’t get “sick in July.”
This “July Effect,” while controversial, has been supported by multiple studies. A 2010 article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine studied over 62 million death certificates. The researchers discovered that there was a 10% spike in July deaths from medication errors compared to the rest of the year, and the spike increased in deaths that occurred in teaching hospitals. A 2011 review from the Annals of Internal Medicine analyzed 39 studies on the “July Effect” and concluded that hospital mortality increases and efficiency decreases during these times of changeover.
However, July isn”t the only bad time to get sick. Weekends and holidays are also bad because the hospital isn”t staffed as aggressively as it is on Monday. As a result, fewer staff members look after a large patient load, which increases the risk of mistakes. One 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that stroke patients who were admitted to the hospital on the weekend had a 14% higher risk of dying that those admitted during the week.
If you find that you do require emergency medical attention, you should 911 or head to the ER to consult with a physician. Since most of us can’t control when we get sick, here are some things you can do to make sure your visit is effective and that you get the best care possible.
Speak up: On the Toyota assembly line, if someone notices a problem – no matter how small – it’s company policy to stop the line and fix it before the small problem becomes a big one. Hospital care should work the same way. If you, or someone who is with you, notice something wrong, alert the nurse or doctor right away. This applies especially if you’re given an unfamiliar medication, having a procedure you didn’t recall discussing of if you think your medical team might be missing something.
When I was a surgical resident in the late 1980s, I had a patient speak up to me. She was a retired schoolteacher in her 60s who had just gotten a breast operation. She pulled the 27-year-old me aside and told me that she thought it was strange that she wasn’t getting any blood thinners, which is necessary in many people to prevent deadly blood clots. As it turns out, I forgot to order the nurse to administer it in my notes! I thanked her for speaking up, and she recovered nicely.
Never go it alone: Being in the emergency room or in a hospital bed on the wards can be a scary experience. Having someone you trust come along makes it less so. That person can also ask questions that you may be too worried to think about or help you understand the treatment plan. This especially applies if you don’t have a good command of English and/or have difficulty communicating with the doctors. Health professionals also love it, because the visitor serves as an extra pair of eyes that alerts the staff if something goes wrong.
Make sure your doctors (and visitors) wash their hands: The spread of hospital germs can be deadly for patients. We doctors are supposed to wash our hands (or use hand sanitizer) each time we touch a patient at the bedside, and most do. However, mistakes happen, and it never hurts to make sure. Plus, you’d be surprised how many dangerous germs your visitors can pick up on their way to your hospital bed. For example, the elevator is an especially dirty place. Everyone, including your visitors, touches the same buttons, and not everyone washes their hands! Politely direct them to a nearby hand sanitizer station or carry a bottle with you from home.
Request that they tuck in the tie or necklace: A 2004 study on doctors’ ties revealed that 20 out of 40 of ties contained dangerous bacteria, which spreads from patient to patient. Hence, doctors avoid this by tucking their ties or necklaces into their shirt during physical exams. That’s why you happen to see a doctor wearing a bowtie during your visit to the hospital, you should stick with him! Not only is this person stylish, he is also taking a step toward preventing the spread of infection.
Last, but not least, make sure you have a primary care physician whom you know and trust. When looking for one, you should try to find a doctor who has hospital privileges, so if you go to the hospital, he or she can visit you, give orders, and advocate for your health – no matter what time of year.
By: Mehmet Oz, MD