Researchers look into why hospital patients have a higher weekend death rate

Date: Aug 16, 2013

It's been well documented that hospital patients are statistically more likely to die if they're admitted over the weekend.

What researchers are now hoping to uncover is why, exactly, mortality rates rise for the two days out of the week. Doctors Chaim Bell, an internist at Mount Sinai Hospital, and Donald Redelmeier of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre recently published a paper that looked into the potential causes.

The Toronto Star recently spoke with Dr Bell about the paper, and he stated that there does not appear to be one single factor contributing to the higher death rates, other than lower-quality care over the weekend.

The two researchers postulated that lower staff levels on weekends may be the culprit, but there was such little evidence to go by, that their studies were inconclusive. To determine these levels, Dr Redelmeier said, the two photographed parking lots on both weekdays and weekends to compare the number of cars.

"We didn’t have a helicopter but you go to the very highest room in a hospital that overlooks the staff parking lot," Dr Redelmeier said.

"We didn’t do that in a systematic manner but thought the visuals were pretty impressive. Parking lots were not nearly as full on weekends as weekdays."

Widespread effect

The Star also spoke with Dr Kaveh Shojania, director of the Centre for Patient Safety at the University of Toronto, who stated that other studies have shown hospitals typically employ fewer people on weekends.

Although he stated it likely isn't some "big public menace", the effects of being understaffed are "real".

In a separate study, Dr Bell asserted that all of the findings about higher weekend mortality rates should be taken with a grain of salt. He pointed out that the findings were for relative risk, which means compared only to weekdays.

Considering the risk of death during surgery on a Monday is extremely low to begin with, comparing it to the difference noted on weekends is minute.

Mark Macleod, chair of the Medical Advisory Committee at London Health Sciences Centre and former president of the Ontario Medical Association, stated that because the issue of whether being admitted to the hospital on the weekend is such a complex issue, it should be dealt with extremely carefully.

Still, being understaffed could lead to employee stress and in turn, medical negligence. In these instances, it may be best to contact medical negligence lawyers to determine the next course of action.

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