Today is my birthday! How old am I? Fortunately that’s not relevant to this blog post. Because today, we’re going to be talking about the most important birthday you need to add to your calendar. And, hard though it is to believe – it’s not my birthday… It’s your surgeon’s. Because a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found that patients who underwent surgery on the surgeon’s birthday exhibited higher mortality than patients who underwent surgery on other days.
Yes, that’s correct. Your surgeon is more likely to kill you if they’re operating on you on their birthday. How’s that for a crazy fact – and a completely inappropriate topic for a light-hearted celebratory birthday blog post? In my defense, the study was published as part of the British Medical Journal’s fun and festive Christmas edition, so I’m not the only one completely misjudging the suitability of the topic for light entertainment.
It’s my surgeon’s birthday. How worried should I be?
The study looked at almost a million surgical procedures performed by 47,489 surgeons, and found that mortality rates were 6.9% on surgeon’s birthdays, compared to 5.6% on other days. That’s a pretty noticeable difference – but there are, of course, a few “buts”…
The study looked at 17 common emergency surgical procedures, performed on patients aged 65 – 99, at US hospitals from 2011 – 2014. The fact that these were emergency procedures performed on older people means the expected mortality rate for the first 30 days after surgery was already quite high. Unless you’re a 65+ year old undergoing a common medical emergency, even if it is your surgeon’s birthday, you’ve probably not got a 6.9% chance of dying. Good news for anyone getting an ingrowing toenail removed (or having pituitary surgery).
Additionally, apparently it’s actually comparable to the kind of increase in death rates that is seen at other times – including Christmas, New Year and weekends. So that’s… not at all reassuring, actually, now I think of it.
Why does it happen?
Well, the study was observational, meaning that the authors couldn’t establish the reasons behind the ‘birthday effect’ they observed, or exclude the impact of other, unmeasured factors. But they suggested a number of factors that could be at play:
- Surgeons rushing to complete procedures on their birthday if they have plans to celebrate later on.
- More distractions from birthday phone messages or conversations with team members, which could lead to more errors.
- Surgeons being less likely to check up on patients following surgery, if they are busy with birthday plans.
They all sound totally plausible, although I’ve also thought of a few of my own that the researchers somehow missed:
- Surgical staff suffering from a sugar rush and subsequent drop in blood sugars after eating birthday cake, impairing surgical performance.
- One or two evil surgeons intentionally killing patients as part of some kind of sick annual birthday ritual. It’s probably a whole conspiracy, guys. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out Bill Gates was involved.
How reliable is the study?
I’m not a statistician, so I’ll leave that question to more experienced maths jockeys. I will say, however, that the letters section of the British Medical Journal website contains a number of letters on the topic from some very disgruntled surgeons, and is well worth a read. To quote one letter from neurosurgeon Steven A. Reid: “One wonders about the intrusion of errors on the part of statisticians on their birthdays — I’m certain the outcome isn’t as dramatic. More speeding tickets perhaps?”
And in conclusion…
Well, I’m not a surgeon, but you’ll be glad to hear I’ve booked my birthday off work anyway. You can’t be too careful, right? And if you’re reading this while in the office, well… play it safe and go read about my experience of transsphenoidal pituitary surgery rather than doing any more of that dangerous work stuff…