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Do women make better doctors?

Female doctors in Australia are hitting glass ceilings – why? - Featured Image


A study from the US has just come out which shows that women are less likely to survive a heart attack if their doctor is a man. The study of over 580,000 myocardial infarction patients showed that women were 1.5% more likely to die if their physician was male; it also found that women were more likely to survive in hospitals where there was a higher proportion of female doctors.

“These results suggest a reason why gender inequality in heart attack mortality persists: most physicians are male, and male physicians appear to have trouble treating female patients,” the authors write.

The authors rightly keep the focus of their study tightly on cardiovascular events. But are there any data out there to support a more general hypothesis that mortality rates may be lower when the treating physician is a woman?

Last year, a Canadian study looked at postoperative outcomes according to the gender of the surgeon involved. The retrospective study of over 100,000 patients undergoing one of 25 different types of surgical interventions found that after matching for age, comorbidity, gender and other possible confounders, fewer patients treated by female surgeons died, were readmitted to hospital or had complications.

The differences were small, but statistically significant, the authors said. They speculated that the female surgeons’ delivery of care might be “more congruent with guidelines, more patient-centred, and involves superior communication”.

Another study published last year compared hospital mortality and readmission rates for patients over 65, according to the gender of the treating doctor. This study, which looked at over 1.5 million hospitalisations, found lower 30-day mortality and readmission rates when the treating doctor was female. Again, the differences were not huge, but they were statistically significant, and the association was consistent across a number of conditions and severity of illness. The authors noted that “data from other industries suggest that men may be less deliberate in their approach to solving complex problems”.

And a meta-analysis of 64 studies looking at physician empathy found that patients were much more likely to describe female doctors as empathetic than male doctors. In an opinion piece, one of the authors makes the point that empathy is needed to be a good doctor.

“Unfriendly doctors are less likely to get enough information from patients to make the right diagnoses, or prescribe the right treatments,” writes Jeremy Howick of the University of Oxford. “One study even showed that unempathetic doctors could cause harm by scaring patients away from medical care when they need it.”

So there you have it. Some of the more recent studies on the subject suggest that women may, on average, make for slightly better doctors than men, in terms of mortality and hospitalisation outcomes. But they are not necessarily getting remunerated for it: female doctors in Australia earn on average around 20% less than their male colleagues, after adjusting for hours worked.

You can access the studies cited in the story here, here, here, here, here and here.