Patients with female doctors have lower risk of death, research shows

Having a female doctor could lower the risk of death or major health issues after surgery or hospitalization, studies have shown over and over.

The latest evidence, published Wednesday in the British Journal of Surgery, finds that surgical teams with more women see fewer health complications among patients than male-dominated teams.

The study compared hospitals in Canada where female surgeons and anesthesiologists made up more than 35% of the surgical teams to hospitals with a smaller share of female doctors. Higher levels of gender diversity were associated with a 3% lower chance of serious health complications for patients within three months of a major, non-emergency surgery. 

The findings are based on an analysis of more than 700,000 procedures at 88 hospitals in Ontario between 2009 and 2019.

A handful of studies over the last decade have similarly shown that female doctors have better patient outcomes.

A study published last month found that women treated by female physicians were less likely to die or be readmitted to the hospital compared to those treated by male physicians. The same was true for elderly hospitalized patients treated by female internists, according to a 2017 study.

Still other research has shown that patients treated by female surgeons had fewer complications post-surgery, such as bleeding.

There may be several reasons for the trend: Female doctors tend to have longer visits with patients than their male colleagues do, and to interrupt them less often. In theory, this extra communication could lead to more accurate diagnoses and treatments or ensure that medical complications aren’t missed or ignored.

Research also suggests that female doctors are more likely to give preventive care, adhere to clinical guidelines and engage in shared decision-making with patients.

But the findings shouldn’t prompt patients to lose trust in male physicians, said Dr. Julie Hallet, lead author of the new study and an associate professor of surgery at the University of Toronto.

“It’s very hard to say a male is better than a female surgeon in general,” she said. “There are male surgeons who are excellent out there, and there are female surgeons who are excellent out there as well.”

Rather, the findings underscore that hospitals provide better care when they have diverse surgical teams, Hallet said.

“It’s not only the right thing to do — it’s really the smart thing to do,” she said.

Hallet added that the strengths associated with female doctors may not make an impact if there’s just a single woman on a surgical team.

“If you have only one or two individuals, they may not feel comfortable to speak up and to bring forward their perspective,” she said. “So there has to be a critical mass achieved before you can see those benefits happen.”

Dr. Dana Telem, a professor of surgery at the University of Michigan who wasn’t involved in the new study, suggested that the improved outcomes linked to female surgeons may have to do with the follow-up care that patients get.

“What happens when somebody calls in with an issue or a problem? Is it addressed?” she said. “It may not even be the intra-operative care, but just the post-op care — what happened to that patient and how they were cared for if they did have an issue.”

According to a 2021 survey, patients with female surgeons were more likely to be seen for checkups or routine care, compared with patients with male surgeons.

Dr. Andrea Riner, a general surgery resident at University of Florida Health, published an editorial several years ago responding to research that showed patients tend to fare worse when their sex is not the same as their surgeon’s.

But it’s hard overall to measure performance differences between male and female doctors, she said.

“If we were to just conclude that female physicians provide better care, that would be an oversimplification,” Riner said. “Seeing some studies published with these data doesn’t necessarily influence who I’m going to seek care from.”

Still, she said, the research helps combat bias against female physicians, which she has experienced herself.

“There are oftentimes that I am assumed to be a nurse or another member of the entire care team based on just my appearance,” Riner said.

While many hospitals acknowledge that diversity in health care is important, women make up just 16% of academic surgery department leaders in the United States.

“It’s not only about recruiting people,” Hallet said. “If you recruit more female physicians but you don’t treat them well or they don’t feel welcome in the environment, then you won’t reap the benefits of having a more diverse team.”

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