medical superstitions

5 Medical Superstitions and Those That are Backed by Science

Many people wouldn’t describe medical professionals as a superstitious bunch. Most of us wouldn’t even describe ourselves as such. But if you work around the medical field for long enough, you’re bound to hear any number of curious medical superstitions. 

Given that Halloween 2020 will have a full moon (a blue moon, actually, so it’s the second full moon in October), you might want to brush up on the spooky season superstitions. Here’s a shortlist of some of the most common superstitions uttered by health care workers in facilities across the country and a few superstitions that are actually backed by science.

Medical Superstitions

Some medical specialties will see more superstitious beliefs than others, particularly the emergency department. But many of our favorite health care superstitions are shared across many specialties, like the beliefs listed below. 

1. Happens in Threes

Bad events tend to happen in threes, according to many medical professionals. It could be three staff quitting unexpectedly, or three codes in one night, or three patient deaths in one week.

Whatever the case, many of us are ever perceptive of patterns — it’s part of our job after all — and it certainly hasn’t escaped our notice that three is a common number in the field.

This isn’t just a superstition held among health care professionals, though. Other people have wondered why bad things happen in sets of threes. Lots of theories suggest that we just have a natural fascination with the number three and trying to fit events into sets of three, whether it’s tied to religion or just to our natural ability to see patterns.

Whatever the case, ask a nurse if they believe deaths happen in threes, and you’ll likely find some variation of the same answer — more or less.

2. Full Moons

Full moons bring out the crazy. Or at least, that’s what you’re likely to hear from many medical floor staff if you ask them about full moons.

Whether in the emergency room or in a skilled nursing facility, you’re bound to run into a nurse or other floor health care professional who can tell you stories about the crazy things they see on their unit during a full moon.

What exactly happens will vary every full moon. If it’s emergency services, it could be a “frequent flyer,” or a patient who routinely comes into the unit due to drug- or shelter-seeking tendencies, showing up and behaving unexpectedly. On other floors, it might be a coincidental influx of patients with unusual diagnoses. 

Some health care professionals see a full moon coming and brace for impact. Others will work the day before, the night of, or the day after and wonder why the shift is so crazy, realizing only later that it was an infamous full moon shift. 

There have been some studies showing there doesn’t seem to be an increase in patient load or acuity around the full moon in emergency services. But many emergency personnel would probably tell you otherwise based on their own experiences. 

3. The “Q” Word

It might be hard for some of us to believe sometimes, but quiet nights in health care facilities do happen. When they do, someone will be tempted to comment on just how quiet, slow, or calm it is.

Experienced personnel know that’s just asking for trouble. The use of the “q” word and any of its relevant synonyms will immediately call up any number of issues to the floor, whether that’s a sudden high influx of patients or an equipment malfunction.

Of course, there doesn’t seem to be any scientific backing to this theory. But most seasoned health care professionals, whether they’re normally superstitious or not, know better than to risk breaking the calm of a quiet shift by commenting on it. 

4. The Black Cloud

These people go by many names, like the black cloud, the harbinger of death, or the cursed one. All of these nicknames refer to that one health care professional, like a doctor or nurse, who always, always seems to have bad luck following them.

If they’re working your shift, you can guarantee a patient will try to die, or you’ll end up with the craziest, most unusual cases. Something always goes wrong when you see this colleague’s name on the schedule.

It doesn’t even matter if the black cloud is a relatively pleasant person. Everyone dreads seeing them on their shift.

5. Say Their Name

There are many urban legends that state if you say an entity’s name, you’ll summon them to you. That’s more or less the concept behind a superstition commonly held in emergency departments — if you say the name of a frequent flyer, they will appear in your department.

This also applies to saying the name of other patients in other situations, too. Like if you say the name of a patient in poor, declining health and that they’re going to pass on during that shift or soon, they’ll somehow hold on far longer than you thought. If you’re really unlucky, another patient will pass on instead before them. 

Basically, if you’re in health care, be careful what you say.

Medical Superstitions Backed by Science

While the examples of superstitions above have little to no scientific backing or studies besides anecdotal evidence, there are a few other superstitions with a little more logic behind them. 

1. Bad Weather and Pain

Whether you work in the medical field or not, you may have heard someone say something along the lines of, “I feel a storm coming on. I can feel it in my bones.”

This takes on a lot of variants, whether it’s an oncoming migraine or just soreness in a formerly injured joint. And it does seem to have some truth to it.

A study on patients with chronic pain from diseases like arthritis found that the data suggested these patients are 20% more likely to experience pain episodes during certain types of weather. In particular, when it’s damp or windy and the atmospheric pressure is low.

2. Births During Extreme Weather

The weather seems to have other effects on our health besides chronic pain flare-ups. Some superstitions say that babies are more likely to be born during bad weather, and there might be some truth to that.

A 2007 study found that, on days where there were large barometric pressure changes in an area, the number of births increased in the same area. 

Weather will change based on the barometric pressure, so it’s not unlikely that this tends to coincide enough with bad weather changes that enough people noticed to turn it into a long-held belief.

Although science doesn’t back up many of our long-held superstitions in the medical field, our shared beliefs and practices may just help us cope with our day to day work. At any rate, the lack of studies to prove our lived experiences and perceptions doesn’t mean these superstitions will stop any time soon.