Don't Get Surgery in July

VIDEO: How to protect yourself from becoming a victim in the operating room.
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A part from interfering with your beach vacation, there's another, more serious reason to steer clear of summer surgery if you can: a 10 percent spike in fatalities at teaching hospitals in July, confirmed by a new Journal of General Internal Medicine study. David Phillips, the study's lead author and professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, speculates that the "July effect" may occur because that's the month when new doctors-in-training begin their residencies.

The fatalities aren't the fault of poor knife skills botching operations, though--rather, they're due to mistakes made prescribing and administering patient medications, both surgery-related and not.

All told, as many as 98,000 deaths occur each year due to all kinds of medical mistakes--the equivalent of a fully packed 747 crashing every other day. According to a congressionally mandated study on Medicare recipients, during 2008, 1 in 7 hospital patients experienced at least one unintended harm that prolonged his or her stay, caused permanent injury, required life-sustaining treatment, or resulted in death.

So what can you do to make sure this doesn't happen to you or someone you love? Plenty, say doctors, nurses, and researchers. Here's where to start.

BYOB

The bottles we mean are strictly Rx. Doctors suggest you bring your actual prescriptions with you to the hospital.

"You cut chances of blunders such as missed doses and interactions when the staff sees what you're taking," says Dr. Tanya Froehlich, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Choose Carefully

Infections that are acquired after checking into the hospital kill 31,000 patients a year, which nearly rivals the number of breast cancer deaths annually, says Dr. Peter Pronovost, the author of Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals. What's more, most of these could easily have been prevented. If you have a choice of hospitals, ask if your doctor knows your options' infection rates, which are measured using "catheter days," meaning every 24 hours that a tube is inserted in a patient's blood vessels. "The best hospitals' rates have been zero in one thousand catheter days for a year or more," says Dr. Pronovost. "If it's risen above three, I'd be worried."

Practice Makes Perfect

The more often a doctor has performed a procedure, the more familiar she is with its variations and complications and the higher her success rate is likely to be. Confirm that your physician is board certified in her specialty (check the American Board of Medical Specialties at abms.org), but also ask her how many times she's treated your condition.

The Power Hour

When you're scheduling surgery, time of day matters: Ask for the second or third slot of the morning.

"Any kinks in the team's coordination or machinery are worked out, and the staff's still well rested," explains Dr. Matthew Buchanan, an orthopedic surgeon in Falls Church, VA.

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More from Prevention:

7 Pains You Should Never Ignore

8 Mistakes that make pain worse

19 Bizarre home cures that work

The healthiest time to do everything

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