Study Says Care from Top Doctors May Not Lead to Better Results

The research found that patients actually fared better when senior physicians were out of town.

If you were sick, you’d want the best doctor in the business, right? A recent study says you may want to think again.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine and led by Harvard Medical School’s Anupam Jena, uncovered a disturbing trend: Patients with serious heart conditions actually fared better when they were treated while senior cardiologists were away.

The research looked at major teaching hospitals in the United States, and concluded that high-risk patients had lower mortality rates from conditions like heart failure and cardiac arrest during national cardiology meetings, when many of the hospitals’ senior-most heart doctors were away attending the conferences. Though the paper did not single out specific hospitals, Jena says Boston’s largest teaching hospitals, like Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, were included in the research.

To confirm that the effect was not a fluke, the researchers examined cardiac mortality rates during oncology, gastroenterology, and orthopedics conferences—in other words, days when senior physicians not working with heart conditions were away—and mortality rates from other conditions, like hip fractures, during the cardiology meetings. They found no difference, suggesting that the lower cardiac mortality rates were at least partially caused by related staff members leaving the hospital.

An op-ed from oncologist and University of Pennsylvania provost Ezekial Emmanuel noted that, while the explanation for this phenomenon is unclear, it could be that junior physicians are actually better suited for hands-on care, since they’re fresh out of medical school training whereas seasoned doctors often shift their focus to research. He also wrote that senior doctors tend to use more interventions, which has actually been shown to make treatment riskier and sometimes less effective.

The moral of the story: You may want to think twice before turning your nose up at care from a junior doctor.