The July Effect

So it’s the end of July, and my first month as a doctor came and went.

Those of us in medicine and even those who are not have probably heard of the “July Effect.”It refers to the phenomenon in which there is a discernible spike in all sorts of bad things at teaching hospitals during the month of July because that is when all the new and inexperienced residents start working. Bad things like higher rates of mortality, more post-surgical complications, increased rates of infection, longer median lengths of stay, etc. You name it, and it’s probably been pinned on some poor intern somewhere. And the lesson for patients? Avoid coming to the hospital in July if you can.

So…is it real?

Interestingly enough, you can find many studies that can either prove or disprove the idea. More often than not, studies will suggest that the difference in any of these adverse outcomes is negligible across all months including July. However, some have occasionally reported slight differences. For example, a 2010 study in Journal of General Internal Medicine suggested that medication errors went up 10% in July in teaching hospitals, but not in neighboring hospitals. A 2013 study in Circulation suggested that cardiac patients had a lower risk of death at teaching hospitals than at non-teaching hospitals, but that risk rose to equivalent levels in July. Plenty of studies with lots of nuances here and there.

So now that I’ve survived that infamous first month, here’s what it felt like from the perspective of the new doctor in his first month with such new and immense responsibility. Yeah, I was scared at times. I felt overwhelmed sometimes. After all, I learned so much medicine over the past four years, and I could still recall a fair amount in enough basic detail to do my job. But I was never confident of any decision or action I made. Every time I ordered a medication, I still looked it up again to make sure it was correct and appropriate. Unlike as a med student, this time, when I placed an order, it just went through without requiring anyone else’s co-signature because I’m a doctor now, and that was a new and scary feeling.

Of course, along with all the fear and anxiety, there were also great first moments. That first time you put on a long white coat. That first time you sign a prescription for your patient with your signature. That first time that you introduce yourself to a patient almost on reflex as a medical student, but then catch yourself, and correctly introduce yourself as a doctor (although I still tell them to call me by my first name). That first time that someone calls you doctor, and they’re not confused or being facetious.

In terms of preparing interns for that transition, I think we’re doing a couple of things well in emergency medicine residencies. First, we actually have a lighter clinical schedule in my residency program during July and spend more of our time on mandatory trainings and didactics. During orientation month, we work “intern shifts” in the emergency department, which are shorter 8 hour shifts in which we are on as additional staffing. The purpose of these shifts is to give the new interns a chance to learn how the hospital runs, get used to the electronic medical systems, and develop some time management skills and efficiency without the pressures of “moving the meat.” Often, the biggest challenge of intern year isn’t necessarily the medicine, but actually learning the ins and outs of your hospital and the minute details, such as how to call consults, place orders, or complete documentation. It’s a good opportunity to develop good practices before we really need to start seeing lots of patients each shift. In other words, don’t worry about that never-ending and constantly growing mountain of patients who need your help in the waiting room…for now. Take it slow, and learn to do things right and well.

Secondly, in the ED, you’re never really alone in residency. You have your attending, your fellow residents, and experienced nurses and staff to rely on for help when you need it. We all work together side by side in the emergency department. Any time I had a question about how to manage a patient or place an order, I always had someone I could tap for advice. Not so for other specialties like internal medicine when the only time you may see your attending is during rounds in the morning and your residents every so often throughout the day.

Sometimes I wonder, if the July Effect was really a concern, why don’t we try to do something about it? After all, I have friends in medicine who started on night float their first night and carried a dozen patients and friends in surgical fields who were already violating work hour rules their first week. I believe they did have a rougher time than I did, and I’m not sure I know enough about their situation to comment on the impact on patient care. In emergency medicine though, most EM residencies include a longer orientation program that combines lighter clinical time and preparatory didactics, so I think we’re doing a better job of orienting our interns. Perhaps it’s especially important in EM to do so because of the unpredictability and potentially higher acuity of the medical cases that an intern may work with. In any case, I’m glad we do it.

So, back to the original question, is the July Effect real? The literature says probably not, but maybe. Personally, I’m not convinced. Yes, interns are inexperienced. But you learn by caring for patients. A little fear also makes you strive harder to be better. That’s how medical education works. There’s no way around it. This moment had to come eventually. And I don’t think patients are harmed by it. I think we recognize the important responsibility that we have trained so long for and that we now carry, and we take good care of our patients, even when we are scared, unconfident, and overwhelmed.

The Next Chapter

They say the jump from medical student to intern, which is the infamous and grueling first year of residency, is the steepest. Of course, I heard that same thing about the jump from MS2 preclinical year to MS3 clinical year and from resident to attending and from young attending to seasoned attending. So who knows? By this point in my medical career, if nothing else, I am very comfortable with being uncomfortable. Or at least very used to it. Willingness to deal with uncertainty is must-have in emergency medicine after all.

What I do know is that MS4 year was awesome. This last year of medical school was truly wonderful and revitalizing. You can have dinner with your family and friends again; you can read a book just for fun; you can actually sleep the number of hours that you recommend to patients, and then some.

Now, with my very newly minted MD, I’m finally making the big jump from medical student to doctor. It took four years to reach the top of the medical student totem pole, and I enjoyed those good times while they lasted. Now, the reward for reaching the top is to start back at the bottom of the “real doctor” totem pole. It’s okay because, by this point, I’ve also grown very accustomed to perpetually being at the bottom of a totem pole.

So why would I choose to start a blog now? At the end of the most carefree period of my life/career and the beginning of what many have told me is the most challenging phase of my medical training? Well, that’s easy. For my sanity and my patients.

Once upon a time, I was a normal human being. I loved to read and write. I had interests and normal reactions to things.

Let me illustrate further what I mean with a simple example. Diarrhea. When people hear about diarrhea, they are generally grossed out, as normal people are, so I’m told. Now, after the brainwashing that is medical training, I’m intrigued about your diarrhea and have a million questions for you regarding it. I want to know the color, odor, consistency, presence of blood…something has happened to me.

I wish I had documented that change in myself more. I wish I wrote more in medical school. So that’s why I’m going to do a better job of it in residency. I want to be able to trace that gradual evolution and at least still recognize the individual in the white coat that I see in the mirror. Physicians are storytellers at heart; patients tell us stories; we present stories to one another. We collect and tell stories all day long. I think the best doctors are the still the ones who remind themselves and remember why they chose to don the white coat in first place.

Medicine is the best job in the world. The training and day to day work can be a little rough on your soul, creativity, and humanity. I have to do what I can to try to preserve and save them.