Longer waiting times and less personalized care may make a weekend stay at the hospital less pleasant, according to a study in the August edition of the American Journal of Medicine, but it probably won't kill you.

Background The suspicion that patient care over the weekend, when many hospitals reduce staffing and services, can lead to unnecessary deaths is so pervasive that has a name: the weekend effect.

Findings In a comparison of nearly 642,000 emergency room patients admitted to 333 California hospitals in 1998, University of Iowa researchers confirmed the existence of the weekend effect, but concluded that its impact was lower than earlier studies had suggested. It increased mortality by 3 percent, a statistically significant measure.

Risk factors Patients with ovarian and uterine cancer, duodenal ulcer and cardiovascular symptoms had the highest mortality rates among weekend admittees. To their surprise, researchers observed more of a weekend effect at teaching hospitals, which typically maintain stable staffing over seven days, than at other hospitals.

The bottom line Weekend patients may have to wait longer for X-rays, a meal -- or painkillers -- but those factors seem to have minimal bearing on whether a patient lives or dies, according to internist Peter Cram, the study's lead researcher. But sick patients who delay going to the hospital may increase their risk. "Patients should be reassured by the findings," he said. "If my mom called and asked if she should check in to the hospital on the weekend, I'd say 'Don't wait. Go now.' "

-- Rita Zeidner