You may have heard that July is not the best time to be admitted to a hospital because that’s the month that new interns (doctors who have just graduated from medical school) join the staff. Over the years, medical experts have pooh-poohed that admonition, insisting that the quality of medical care does not suffer when new interns arrive at hospitals. But that’s not the finding of a multi-institution study. This research found that not only are first-year interns more prone to mistakes than more experienced physicians, but so are all residents (the general term for doctors, including interns, who have been assigned to a hospital for advanced training in a medical specialty following four years of medical school).

The errors that these doctors in specialty training programs make, including misdiagnoses, not ordering necessary medical tests, etc., stem not only from their lack of judgment and technical competence, but also from inadequate supervision by senior physicians, who should review the doctors’ diagnoses, test orders and treatment recommendations.

How to protect yourself or a loved one from such mistakes…

Know who is treating you. After one year of training at a hospital, an intern is generally referred to as a “resident” or “resident physician.” Residencies can last from two to five or more years, depending on the specialty in which the doctor is training. For example, family practice and internal medicine residencies average three years, while surgical residencies can last five or more years.

Self-defense: Always ask the doctor who is treating you in the hospital or emergency room whether he/she is a resident. If so, ask to see a senior physician (who always should be present or on call) to confirm the diagnosis or suggested treatment.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a specialist’s opinion. Several months ago, I accompanied a female family member who was experiencing unexpected vaginal bleeding to an emergency room. A resident was the first to see her and, after examining her, he said he thought the problem was a minor irritation. He was about to discharge her with a recommendation to see her gynecologist later in the week when we asked to see the gynecologist on call. This doctor arrived about a half hour later. He immediately ordered a biopsy and imaging scans and within four hours determined that she had a growth in her uterus. Within a day, it was determined to be cancerous and surgery was quickly scheduled.

Self-defense: Don’t be afraid to ask for a board-certified specialist to deal with your suspected or known problem. If such a specialist is not available, ask to see a hospitalist (a doctor who is specially trained to deal with hospital patients).

Be on the lookout for fatigue. Residents are often on call for 24 hours or more at a time, and many are dead tired from overwork and lack of sleep.

Self-defense: Whether you’re in the emergency room or an inpatient at a hospital, don’t hesitate to ask how long any resident who is treating you has been on call or on duty. If it is more than 12 hours, ask for a second opinion on any medical advice this doctor gives you.