Don’t get surgery on this day

Birthdays. They’re happy for some and little more than a reminder of getting older for others.

Everyone has them, even surgeons. Although, when booking a date for any surgery, you may wish to enquire when the surgeon’s birthday is before locking it in.

It seems patients who undergo surgery on a surgeon’s birthday experience higher mortality compared with patients who undergo surgery on other days of the year, says a US study published in The BMJ.

Is it because surgeons are distracted by the thought of cake or a date or special treatment when they get home? Researchers certainly seem to think so, with the findings suggesting life events that are not directly related to work may distract surgeons during work hours.

Common distractions in the operating room, such as noise, equipment problems, and personal conversations, can have a detrimental effect on surgeons’ performance.

This is all worked out with lab experiments, so the researchers aren’t willing to commit to a call until further real-life evidence can be analysed.

They do theorise, though, that surgeons might be distracted or try to rush through procedures on their birthdays, meaning patient outcomes may differ on those days compared to standard work days.

Their theory was based on analysis of US Medicare data of patient death within 30 days after surgery for patients aged 65 to 99 years who underwent one of 17 common emergency surgical procedures in US hospitals between 2011–2014

They cross-referenced this data with surgeons’ birthdays, as well as patient age and severity of illness, surgeon specialty, and hospital staffing levels.

Of the 980,876 procedures performed by 47,489 surgeons, 2064 (0.2 per cent) were performed on surgeons’ birthdays.

Patients who had surgery on these days exhibited higher mortality compared with patients who underwent surgery on other days (6.9 per cent on birthdays versus 5.6 per cent on other days).

But birthdays aren’t the only days you should worry about, say researchers, who claim mortality rates on Christmas and New Year holidays and weekends may also be higher.


Again, surgeons may rush to complete procedures on time on these days because they might be trying to keep plans with friends and family.

On birthdays, conversations with colleagues or distracting birthday messages coming through on phones during surgery may also lead to errors.

Surgeons may also be disinclined to check up on their patients with the same vigour on life event days compared to normal days.

The researchers are quick to establish that this is an observational study only as they were unable to examine actual causes of death or exclude the impact of other unmeasured factors.

They also say a focus on older patients means that findings may be skewed.

However, there is enough in the findings to warrant concern, they say.

With this knowledge, would you be now inclined to ask for your surgeon’s birthday, or put off a procedure until after Christmas or New Year?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Publisher of YourLifeChoices – Australia's most-trusted and longest-running retirement website. A trusted voice on Australia's retirement landscape, including retirement income and planning, government entitlements, lifestyle and news and information relevant to Australians over 50. Leon has worked in publishing for more than 25 years and is also a travel writer and editor, graphic designer and photographer.

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