Why are health care workers so superstitious?

Shhhhh…Don’t say the word ‘quiet’ in the hospital unless you want to get a dirty look

“Superstition brings bad luck.”

– Raymond Smullyan, from the book 5000 B.C. and other Philosophical Fantasies, 1984

Generally speaking, those of us in the field of medicine are logical, practical individuals. We’re evidence-based thinkers and rational scientists. However, there are a few interesting superstitions still common within hospital walls.

One of these is that it is discouraged to utter certain words in the hospital. As a medical student, unaware of this rule, I walked into a shift in the emergency department when things were unusually calm.

“It seems quiet in here tonight,” I said. Those within earshot exchanged glances with raised eyebrows.

“What?” I asked. “Did I say something?”

The resident explained that I wasn’t supposed to say the ‘q’ word in the hospital. “If it’s not busy, just appreciate it silently,” she said.

Moments later, we received a call from the paramedics saying that a man having a cardiac arrest was coming in, followed by a patient having a stroke.

Another form of superstition in the hospital is the concept of ‘call karma.’ This refers to the idea that certain doctors attract the very sickest patients while on call (these people are said to have bad call karma). Other doctors who seem to attract less sick patients, in turn, have good call karma.

Once I became familiar with the concept, I learned that I fell into the bad call karma category. When I was on call, it seemed like I always had the sickest patients. My colleagues would jokingly ask me to try my best to not cause too many sick people to come in.

Recently, a fellow physician sent me a text asking how my night on call was going. Before I could get back to her, she said, “Never mind. If it’s going well, I wouldn’t want to jinx it.”

Though I’m not inherently superstitious, I like that these superstitions exist. They add a certain lightness to a work environment that can be very heavy by offering unusual explanations for random variations in intensity that can exist from day-to-day. Also, as health care professionals, we want what is best for our patients. We want them to survive and recover.

Perhaps these superstitions have arisen from the desire to have some degree of control of not only the flow of our workday, but also the health of our patients. And maybe that’s why I still don’t say the ‘q’ word in the hospital.

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