a closer look at the so called july effect and its impact on medical treatment

At this time of the year, it’s not uncommon to hear the term “the July effect” bandied about in conversations about medical treatment. To the uninitiated, this probably sounds like a description of some vague time period in which people are somehow more susceptible to certain injuries or illnesses.

The truth is that the term refers to the phenomenon of hospital negligence/medical mistakes increasing during the month of July since that’s when experienced residents, senior trainees and fellows move on to new roles, and leave the majority of patient care to interns fresh out of medical school.

Not surprisingly, studies on whether there is any truth to the July effect have produced mixed results:

  • A 2012 study in the medical journal Neurology found that patients undergoing neurosurgery in the month of July fared no worse than patients in any other month
  • A 2012 study in the medical journal Cancer found that patients undergoing spinal surgery to treat cancer in July were more than twice as likely to suffer a surgical complication and 81 percent more likely to die than patients treated in June or August

Given these conflicting answers, the question then becomes, how important is medical experience anyway?

Like so many of life’s questions, the answer is “it depends.”

Experts point out that medical experience is generally a very good thing as it enables physicians to identify symptoms of injuries/illnesses that may not be otherwise be obvious. Similarly, more experience with medical treatments — particularly surgical treatments — results in honed skills for physicians and, by extension, better patient outcomes.

However, experts also point out that experienced physicians may perhaps be prone to medical mistakes since they are more apt to become overconfident, disregarding certain tests or symptoms. Furthermore, they may rely on treatment methods that have since been supplanted by something more effective.

Whether or not the July effect is actually real, experts advise that patients can protect themselves by asking plenty of questions and taking the time to research the “right” approach to their ailment.

Source: CNN, “The ‘July effect’: Why experienced doctors may not deliver the best care,” Zachary Meisel and Jesse Pines, July 17, 2012

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