Holidays are a good time to avoid hospitals

 

Research shows that holidays, weekends, evenings and the whole month of July have a higher risk for medical errors

 
November 23, 2012

Have you ever noticed that any time you or family member gets sick, it seems to happen on an evening, weekend or holiday? That certainly seems how it goes in our family. Did you know, though, that during these times the risk of medical and nursing errors in the hospital is much higher than normal?

If possible, avoid hospitals on weekends, evenings and holidays

No matter the occupation or workplace, most people enjoy taking time off from work around the holidays and during the summer. Most people also prefer to work day shifts, rather than evenings or weekends. Generally, personnel with the most seniority get to choose the plum shifts and get preference for taking time off.

Hospitals are no different. The most senior, experienced doctors and nurses are usually nowhere to be found during holidays. They are also pretty scarce on evenings, weekends and quite often during summertime. Instead, during these time periods, patients will likely be treated by inexperienced doctors and nurses, with little direct supervision from more seasoned health care professionals.

My advice is to avoid a hospitalization, if at all possible, during these periods. A safer alternative is to select another date when the more experienced health care providers will likely be at work. Some people try to schedule elective procedures when they are off work, like during holidays. Based on the data, though, this is not such a good idea.

July is also a bad time for a hospitalization at many big hospitals

Major university and medical center hospitals have a great reputation for cutting-edge care. Most people do not realize, though, that often the majority of patient care at such facilities is provided my doctors who have only been out of medical school for a few months or, at the most, a few years. These new doctors usually provide most of the front-line care and are supposed to be closely supervised by physicians with more experience and training.

These doctors-in-training are called residents. In Texas, state law allows them to practice medicine, but most of them do so under institutional permits rather than full-fledged medical licenses. As residents, these new physicians enroll in additional training programs, sort of like apprenticeships, where they lean their specialties. A significant part of this training is in academic or medical center hospitals, where they provide direct clinical care to patients.

In 2010, the Journal of Internal Medicine published a study that had some shocking conclusions about care provided by residents, particularly in July. Most medical schools graduate their new doctors in May or June, and the residency programs start in July.

Guess what also happens in July? Of course, the Independence Day holiday is at the beginning of the month. In addition, many of the senior doctors and nurses choose to take summer vacation during July. This means that brigades of brand new, inexperienced doctors are turned loose on academic and medical center hospital patients, often with much less supervision than normal.
And the results are not good. The 2010 study showed a dramatic increase in medical and prescription errors in July—but only at academic and medical center hospitals that have residents.

If you have to go to the hospital during these time periods

Be aware of the increased risk of a hospitalization during July, holidays, weekends and even evenings. You should have a friend or family with you in the hospital 24 hours a day, seven days a week who can be your “eyes and ears” and advocate for the health care that you need. You should execute a HIPAA (medical records confidentiality) release and may want to sign a health care power of attorney document to make sure that your advocate can discuss your health care with the doctors and nurses.

Your advocate can ask simple, polite questions about the health care that is being provided. Your advocate can also make sure that nurses do not miss medication doses and that physician orders are followed. In short, your family member or friend can make sure that you do not fall through the cracks. And, most importantly, he or she can request nursing or physician attention upon noticing that you are acting differently or something just seems “off.” A close family member or friend will almost always recognize these important early signs before a health care provider will notice them.

It is always a good idea to get acquainted with the nurses and doctors taking care of you, but is particularly important during these higher-risk periods. For each doctor who sees you, find out if he or she is an attending physician (experienced doctor) or resident (doctor in training). Make sure you also understand who is your overall attending physician—the experienced doctor who is in charge of your overall care.

Also, do not forget that the nursing staff is an important part of your care. Doctors are in and out of your room, often very quickly, but the nurses are there for the long haul. You should know how long your bedside nurses have been practicing, what their experience is on the unit where you are admitted (for example, ICU or post-surgical ward) and whether they are registered nurses (RN) or licensed vocational nurses (LVN).

The next level of supervision above bedside nurses is the charge nurse. You or your advocate should know how to get in touch with the charge nurse, in case there is any problem with the nursing or physician care. Charge nurses are trained on how to take problems up the “chain of command” to get action on your behalf.

No matter when you are hospitalized, you should take precautionary measures to make sure that you are not victimized by medical errors or malpractice. This is even more important, though, during this high-risk time periods.

Contact Painter Law Firm if you need help

If you, or someone close to you, has suffered from medical malpractice as a result of short-staffing or inexperienced doctors and nurses, please contact Painter Law Firm, at 281-580-8800, for a free consultation with a health care attorney. We have represented all kinds of clients in cases like this at hospitals in the Memorial Hermann system, Kindred/Triumph system, Methodist system, Conroe Regional Medical Center, North Cypress Medical Center, Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center and many others.

Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an attorney and member of Painter Law Firm PLLC.

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