INEXPERIENCED DOCTORS, OVERCONFIDENT DOCTORS, AND YOU

THE JULY EFFECT AND THE NOVEMBER EFFECT

In American teaching hospitals, newly minted doctors begin internships each July. The term “July Effect” was coined to describe this shift change in academic hospitals each July, when the arrival of inexperienced doctors may increase the risks of medical care. In the United Kingdom, newly minted doctors begin their internships each August. In Britain, August has been referred to as the “Killing Season,” because of a perceived increased risk of medical complications, morbidity, and mortality with new doctors during their first month on duty.

Phillips found medication errors increased 10% during the month of July at American teaching hospitals, but not at neighboring community hospitals (1). In England, an Imperial College London study of records for 300,000 patients at 170 hospitals from 2000 and 2008 found death rates were 6% higher on the first Wednesday in August than on the previous Wednesday (2).

Multiple other studies have shown no change in mortality in American teaching hospitals in July, but the July Effect has real elements. There’s no way the competence of an academic hospital’s physician staff on July 1st can compare with that same hospital’s staff on June 30th. In the specialty of internal medicine, a residency is three years long (the first year of residency is also referred to as an internship). Each July 1st, third-year residents graduate and new medical school graduates replace one-third of the internal medicine team.

Imagine if a corporation like Google, Apple, Facebook, or General Electric dismissed one-third of their workforce once a year. There ‘s no way a company could be as productive after the change.

An anesthesia residency is three years long, preceded by one year of internship. One year after medical school, the same graduate who just completed twelve months of internship now reaches perhaps an even more difficult transition—the first months of anesthesia residency. Instead of writing histories, examining patients, making diagnoses, and prescribing medications as interns and internal medicine doctors do, anesthesia residents are rendering their patients unconscious, applying acute pharmacology, and inserting tubes and needles into patients in operating rooms at all hours of the day and night.

On July 1st of the first day of my anesthesia residency I reported at 0630 hours to the San Jose, California county hospital where I was assigned. I walked into the operating room and stared at the collection of anesthesia apparatus with complete bewilderment. I had no idea how the patient would even be connected to the anesthesia machine. As it turned out, the hoses that exited the machine weren’t installed yet, because I’d arrived before the anesthesia technicians who stocked the operating rooms. When it was time to begin the first anesthetic, the attending faculty anesthesiologist said to me, “I don’t think the operating room is a good place to learn in the beginning.” He injected sodium pentothal into the patient’s IV, placed the breathing tube into the patient’s windpipe, and hooked the patient up to the anesthesia machine. After ten minutes, he left to pursue other duties. I was alone, under-informed, and full of dread. I was on call that same night, and spent twenty-four hours in the hospital enduring case after case until six the next morning. When I left the hospital I had some rudimentary knowledge of how an anesthetic was done, but I’d failed to successfully place a breathing tube into any patient’s windpipe myself—a faculty member had to do every procedure for me. At the conclusion of the last anesthetic, I turned off the isoflurane (the predominant gas anesthetic at the time), switched off the ventilator, and waited, wondering why the patient wasn’t waking up. Many days later I learned that the isoflurane had no way to escape the patient’s lungs or brain unless I kept the ventilator on and continued ventilation of the patient’s lungs.

Anesthesia education today has improved since the 1980’s when I was a first-year resident, but the same themes persist. First-month trainees are very inexperienced. A supervising attending must teach them, mentor them, and lecture them—case by case—until each resident learns the basic skills.

Every month during anesthesia residency, the calendar turns to a new page and a new set of challenges. New rotations include specialty services in obstetrical anesthesia, pediatric anesthesia, trauma anesthesia, cardiac anesthesia, or regional block anesthesia. The most complex cases are saved for the second and third years of residency, but first-year residents will rotate through perhaps 80% of the array of cases during their first twelve months. During the earliest months of training, first-year anesthesia residents gain skills in the basic tasks of placing breathing tubes, intravenous lines, spinal blocks, epidural blocks, and arterial lines. They begin to feel confidence, and the anxiety of July fades.

It’s best if the jitters never fade away completely.

In my fifth year as an anesthesiologist, I was an attending at Stanford University, and I greeted one of my senior colleagues outside the locker room one morning. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “I’m OK except for the customary pre-anesthesia anxiety.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Every morning I have to cope with the reality of what I do. I’m taking patients’ lives into my hands, and I can’t screw up.”

Think about that. Those workers at Google, Apple, Facebook, or General Electric have work pressures, but none of them has anxiety that they could harm a patient’s life forever.

Beyond the July Effect is the “November Effect.” The November Effect is the time when a physician feels confidence—even cockiness—and senses that they are well trained, experienced, in control, and can handle almost anything. The path to the November Effect is circuitous and the timing is variable. When I was an anesthesia resident, several of my colleagues never got there. One colleague succumbed to the stress of late night emergency anesthesia induction. He described to me the ordeal of trying to place a breathing tube urgently into a surgical patient who had a belly full of pizza and beer. I still remember the anesthesiologist’s face as he told the story. His eyes bugged out, his cheeks were pale, and he said, “I underestimated this specialty. I can’t do this for a whole career.” He quit. A second colleague had a near-disaster during the induction of anesthesia for an emergency Cesarean section. His anesthesia machine had no oxygen flow, so he blew into the mother’s breathing tube with his own mouth to keep the patient oxygenated. The patient and her baby survived, but his assessment was, “I can’t do this as a career. I need something less stressful.” He quit, too.

In November of my second year as an anesthesia resident I had 16 months of anesthesia training under my belt. I’d gained the swagger that comes with accomplishment, and lost some of the respect for the dangers of my specialty. I was on call in the hospital for obstetrics one night, and I tried to handle an emergency Cesarean section surgery at 1 a.m. by myself before my anesthesia faculty member arrived to assist me. I’ve chronicled the tale in a previous column (https://theanesthesiaconsultant.com/2012/07/15/an-anesthesia-anecdote-an-inept-anesthesia-provider-can-kill-a-patient-in-less-than-two-minutes). I was unable to place the patient’s breathing tube, she ran out of oxygen, and I thought I’d killed both her and her baby. My attending arrived in the nick of time, entered the operating room donned in his street clothes, and saved the day for all of us.

It was November, not July. I didn’t think I was a novice, but I was. It takes years, maybe a lifetime, to become an expert at anesthesia. Per Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. For the specialty of anesthesia, even if one works 60 hours a week—which translates to about 3000 hours a year—it will take more than three years time to become an expert.

Even after those 10,000 hours, every patient presents a unique opportunity for events to stray from routine. Any case could go awry—there could be an unanticipated allergic reaction, an unexpected surgical bleed, an airway emergency or a mistaken diagnosis. Safe anesthesia practice demands a respectful level of anxiety at all times. Like a Boy Scout, an anesthesiologist needs to be prepared at all times.

Physician overconfidence is a current area of study. Meyer looked at 118 physicians who were each given 4 cases to diagnose (3). Two cases were easy and two were difficult, and the physicians were also asked how confident they were that they’d made the correct diagnosis. The physicians got 55% of the diagnoses correct for the two easier cases, and only 5% of the diagnoses correct for the more difficult cases. On a scale of 0-10, physicians rated their confidence as 7.2 on average for the easier cases, but as 6.4 on average for the more difficult cases. Physicians still had a very high level of confidence, even though their diagnostic accuracy dropped to a mere 5%. This was a striking statistic. Even physicians who are fully trained can be overconfident and can make misdiagnoses. Further data regarding physician overconfidence and how to correct it are welcomed.

An anesthesiologist’s work requires rapid, complex decisions that can be very susceptible to decision errors. Anesthesiologists work in a complex environment in the operating room, a setting where there is little room for mistakes. In acute care medicine, be it in the operating room, the emergency room, a battlefield, or an intensive care unit, the correct management of Airway-Breathing-Circulation is imperative to keep patients alive and well. Errors, be they caused by inexperience or overconfidence, can result in dire complications.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re a patient be wary of inexperienced doctors at a teaching hospital, especially in July and August. You might bring a friend or family member as a patient advocate to assure that more senior and experienced attending physicians are involved in your case. If you’re a patient and dealing with a confident doctor, be aware that confidence is not always well founded. Be skeptical of overconfidence and ask questions.

If you’re an anesthesiologist, look inward and assess whether you’re inexperienced or whether you tend toward overconfidence. Know yourself and better yourself. If you are inexperienced, then gain experience. If you tend to be overconfident, then humble yourself before the practice of medicine humbles you.

References:

(1) Phillips DP et al, A July Spike in Fatal Medication Errors: A Possible Effect of New Medical Residents; J Gen Intern Med, May 2010;25(8): 774–779.

(2) Will patients really die this week because of new NHS hospital doctors? The Guardian. Retrieved 28 September 2013.

(3) Meyer ND et al, Physician’s Diagnostic Accuracy, Confidence, and Resource Requests, JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(21):152-58.

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Introducing …,  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a legal mystery. Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

On October 2, 2014 THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN became the world’s  #1 bestselling anesthesia Kindle book on Amazon.com.

The first four chapters are available for free at Amazon. Read them and you’ll be hooked! To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.

Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.

Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick novak.com by clicking on the picture below:

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