Patients ‘less likely to die’ if treated by a female doctor, study reveals

Researchers find lower mortality and hospital readmission rates in those treated by female physicians

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES,  JUNE 17, 2013. Working moms. Dr. Houriya Kazim BSc, MPH, MB BCh, FRCS, Medical Director and Specialist Breast Surgeon, an Emirati and the country's first female surgeon at work on a surgery at the Dubai London Speciailty Hosptial on Beach rd.  Freelancer is Rachel Lewis. (ANTONIE ROBERTSON / The National)
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Patients treated by female doctors have a reduced risk of dying, with female patients benefiting more than their male counterparts, new research has found.

The mortality rate for female patients was 8.15 per cent when treated by female physicians compared to 8.38 per cent when a male counterpart was involved.

While the difference for male patients was smaller, female doctors had a 10.15 per cent mortality rate compared with male medics’ 10.23 per cent rate.

The study, published on Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine, found the same pattern for hospital readmission rates.

Dr Yusuke Tsugawa, associate professor-in-residence of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the study’s senior author said the findings are important and could help improve care for future patients.

“Patient outcomes should not differ between male and female physicians if they practice medicine the same way,” he said.

“What our findings indicate is that female and male physicians practice medicine differently, and these differences have a meaningful impact on patients' health outcomes.

“Further research on the underlying mechanisms linking physician gender with patient outcomes, and why the benefit of receiving the treatment from female physicians is larger for female patients, has the potential to improve patient outcomes across the board.”

The researchers examined insurance body Medicare's claims data from 2016 to 2019 for 458,100 female and about 319,800 male patients.

Of those, 142,500 and 97,500, or about 31 per cent for both, were treated by female doctors.

The primary outcomes were 30-day mortality from the date of hospital admission and 30-day readmission from the date of discharge.

Male doctors 'may underestimate severity of female patients' illnesses'

The researchers said there could be several factors driving the differences.

Previous research has found that male doctors might underestimate the severity of their female patients’ illnesses from pain levels to gastrointestinal and cardiovascular symptoms, and stroke risk, which could lead to delayed or incomplete care.

It says female doctors may communicate better with their female patients, making it likelier that these patients provide important information leading to better diagnoses and treatment.

Female patients may be more comfortable with receiving sensitive examinations and engaging in detailed conversations with female physicians.

Another study found that female doctors are more empathetic, which could help reduce their patients' pain and anxiety. It found that patients of empathetic doctors are more likely to take their medication as prescribed.

Dr Tsugawa says more research is needed into how and why male and female physicians practice medicine differently and its effect on patient care.

“A better understanding of this topic could lead to the development of interventions that effectively improve patient care,” he said.

In addition, gender gaps in physician pay should be eliminated, he said.

“It is important to note that female physicians provide high-quality care, and therefore, having more female physicians benefits patients from a societal point-of-view,” he said.

The study supports similar findings published last year which found that patients operated on by a female surgeon are less likely to die or experience complications than those whose surgery is performed by a male doctor.

The research, a collaboration between surgeons from Canada and the US which was published by the Jama Surgery journal, found female surgeons have lower rates of adverse postoperative outcomes, including death at 90 days and one year after surgery, compared with those treated by male surgeons.

Its authors concluded that the findings further support differences in patient outcomes based on the sex of the physician that warrant deeper study regarding underlying causes and potential solutions.

The paper, entitled Surgeon Sex and Long-Term Post-Operative Outcomes Among Patients Undergoing Common Surgeries, examined whether there was an association between the gender of surgeons and patients’ long-term outcomes.

Another study from Sweden into 150,000 patients undergoing gallbladder surgery found that patients treated by female surgeons suffered fewer complications and experienced shorter hospital stays than those operated on by men.

The research, which was also published in Jama Surgery, found female surgeons operated more slowly than men and were less likely to switch from a keyhole technique to an open procedure.

Prof Martin Almquist at Skåne University hospital in Sweden wrote in an accompanying editorial: “The fact that female surgeons had operations with fewer complications but longer operation times suggests that the Navy Seal mantra ‘slow is smooth, and smooth is fast’ also applies to surgery.”

Day of admission

According to a previous study of patients admitted to hospitals in England in 2013 and 2014, the day a patient is admitted is also significant to mortality risk.

It showed those admitted at the weekend face a higher risk of death within 30 days, even when the severity of their illness is taken into account.

Patients admitted on a Saturday and Sunday have a 10 per cent and 15 per cent higher risk of death than those admitted on a Wednesday.

Updated: April 23, 2024, 7:32 PM