Q: I saw a study recently that said that patients cared for by women doctors had better outcomes. Can this really make a difference? Should I be switching to a female doctor?
This study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in February, certainly got a lot of press!
Researchers from Harvard looked at records from more than 1.5 million patients over age 65 who were admitted to general medical wards of hospitals all over the U.S. In looking at patient mortality rates and the sex of the treating physicians, they found that patients treated by female doctors were more likely to leave the hospital alive than those treated by male doctors. The study also found that patients of female doctors were less likely to be readmitted within a month of discharge.
The first thing to note is that a study like this can’t determine cause and effect, and the findings are at the level of large populations — they don’t speak to the skills of any particular male or female physician. (So if you’re admitted to the hospital under a male physician, don’t worry!) The authors also had access only to American data, and the health care system there is very different than we have here in Canada.
But the findings do build on studies that show differences in practice patterns between male and female doctors. Prior research has shown that female doctors are more likely to adhere to clinical guidelines, provide preventive care more often and use more patient-centred communication.
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So there might be something to this that the medical profession and the hospital community need to consider.
The big take-away here, in my opinion, is for medical educators. They should be aware of this research and asking questions: Are there implicit messages in medical culture that we send to male physicians that might cause them to be less careful, spend less time, show less empathy or be less methodical in their approaches? Are we setting up our male physicians to not do as well as they want to do?
At the end of the day, when we’re talking about primary care or planned specialty care, where there is time to consider one’s options, the most important thing is that you find the right doctor for you — someone with whom you can make a connection and build a trusting relationship. If you’re admitted to the hospital unexpectedly, there are probably more important things to worry about than the sex of your doctor.
Danielle Martin is a family physician and vice-president, medical affairs and health system solutions, at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.
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