New residents may cause spike in fatal drug errors

By Tom Nordlie • Published: August 6th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Graduating from the classroom to the workplace can be challenging.

Even the brightest students are likely to make a few mistakes as they go.

In many fields, those errors don’t cost anything except time and resources.

But when young doctors make mistakes, patients can die.

Which brings up something called the “July Effect.”

That term refers to the rumor that patient care takes a nosedive in U-S teaching hospitals every July, when many new doctors begin their residency training.

But is the July Effect real, or just an urban myth?

According to a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, the rumor contains a grain of truth.

In the study, researchers combed through thirty years of U-S death certificates.

They gathered the cases where death was blamed on preventable medication errors such as overdoses.

Then the researchers noted the month each death occurred.

Finally, they grouped the cases geographically.

The results showed that counties with teaching hospitals experienced a ten percent jump in fatal medication errors every July.

No spike occurred in counties without teaching hospitals.

The scientists concluded that new residents were at least partly responsible for the spike.

Obviously, more research is needed.

For starters, someone should determine if there are common factors behind the medication errors.

And perhaps hospitals should reassess which tasks are appropriate for new residents.

It’s also possible that more supervision would help, along with more education about patient safety.

But it’s time for action.

The Hippocratic oath begins, “first, do no harm.”

And experienced health-care personnel must do everything possible to prevent first-timers from making mistakes.