Hospital patients fare better in the hands of female doctors, a new study suggests

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Who’s using it matters.
Image: Reuters/Regis Duvignau
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There are about half as many female doctors than male doctors in the US, and they tend to practice medicine a little differently.

They seem to be better at treating patients with certain conditions, like Type 2 diabetes (paywall) and chronic heart failure, and talking to their patients about how their habits (like smoking or sexual behavior) can affect (paywall) their health.

Women may also simply be better overall doctors. Researchers from the Harvard University Chan School of Public Health found that female physicians tending to hospitalized patients over 65 had fewer patients die under their care, and fewer patients return to the hospital after 30 days than their male colleagues. The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“The gender of the physician appears to be particularly significant for the sickest patients,” Yusuke Tsugawa, a physician, professor of public health at Harvard, and lead author of the paper, said in a statement.

The research team looked at the hospital records of over 1.5 million Medicare patients with a wide variety of health conditions from the beginning of 2011 to the end of 2014. They looked specifically at patients being admitted—in other words, these were patients who couldn’t choose their doctors. The study also controlled for variables like the time patients were admitted to the hospital (to control for differences in shift times), doctors’ ages, and the type of medical school they attended. Overall care was good: less than 12% of patients died prematurely, and less than 16% of them were readmitted to the hospital within a month of being discharged.

The differences in patient outcomes were slim—patients treated by female doctors were 4% and 5% less likely to have these outcomes, respectively. But this difference translates into thousands of lives. Roughly 32,000, in fact—roughly the annual same number of gun-related deaths in the US.

The study couldn’t isolate exactly why female doctors outperformed men in these cases, but the team postulates that it may be because women take a different approach to problem solving. “Men may be less deliberate in their approach to solving complex problems,” they authors write. Perhaps women are more likely to stick to the books when treating complicated conditions, or to talk things through with their peers when necessary.

The authors note that they’ll need to do future work to pinpoint these differences, so they can hopefully bring any lagging male doctors up to speed on best medical practices. In the meantime, though, hospitals can consider closing the wage gap for their female physicians: Even though they outperform men, women still earn an average of $20,000 less.