Novice doctors taking on increased responsibility for patients probably account for a yearly spike in fatal medical errors in the United States, according to a study released Wednesday.
Suspecting a link between inexperience and medical mistakes, researchers examined nearly a quarter of a million death certificates from the period 1979 to 2006 on which "fatal medication error" was listed as the primary cause of death.
They found that in counties with teaching hospitals, fatalities due to such errors -- giving the wrong drug, accidental overdose, inappropriate use of medication during surgery -- spiked each July, on average 10 percent above the expected level.
July is the month when thousands of young doctors begin medical residences, notes the study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
The annual peak in deaths did not occur at any other time during the year, or in counties without teaching hospitals, which serve as a training ground for interns.
Furthermore, no similar link was observed for other causes of death, or for deaths outside hospitals.
"Our findings provide fresh evidence for re-evaluating responsibilities assigned to new residents and increasing supervision," conclude David Phillips and Gwendolyn Barker, researchers at the University of California at San Diego.
"Incorporating these changes might reduce both fatal and non-fatal medication errors" as well as associated costs, they said.