Who's the better doctor? Try a woman

Elderly hospital patients may be less likely to die prematurely or be readmitted for serious complications when they're treated by female physicians, a USA study suggests.

They adjusted the data for patient and physician characteristics and hospital fixed effects, effectively comparing female and male physicians within the same hospital.

"Some have suggested that home responsibilities might contribute to female physicians providing inferior care and thus justify these disparities", Parks said by email. "These findings indicate that potential differences in practice patterns between male and female physicians may have important clinical implications". They also were more likely to have training in osteopathic medicine and to have treated fewer patients.

Overall, the researchers deduced that the sex of the doctor seemed to have an influence on the risk of patient death. Research also finds that female doctors tend to be more effective at communicating with patients.

The study, which examined data from more than 1 million Medicare beneficiaries, said that if male doctors achieved the same outcomes as female doctors, annual deaths of Medicare patients alone would drop by 32,000. Just over 15 percent were hospitalized again within 30 days, versus about 15.6 percent of patients treated by a male internist.

The findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine were based on a sample of more than one million people whose records were analyzed from 2011 to 2014.

Female physicians now account for approximately one third of the USA physician workforce and comprise half of all US medical school graduates.

The findings, published online December 19 in JAMA Internal Medicine, do not prove that women are better doctors.

Jha said he hopes the study will spur constructive conversation.

The findings were unaffected when restricting analyses to patients treated by hospitalists, noted Yusuke Tsugawa, MD, MPH, PhD, of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Cambridge, Mass., and colleagues, adding that the advantages associated with female physicians persisted across eight common medical conditions and across patients' severity of illness. Have there been gender differences in the reaction?

For Landler - given the differences in clinical practice - Tsugawa's findings weren't "terribly surprising based on real life, and my interactions outside the hospital". The task is particularly challenging among elderly patients, who see an average of seven physicians a year across four different practices, according to the Institute of Medicine.

More effective communication has been linked with higher rates of patient satisfaction, lower readmissions, and better adherence to therapeutic recommendations.

The team tried to account for some of the variables, such as the possibility that people who choose female doctors may do better for various reasons.

But she and Jha both pointed to an issue that has long existed in medicine, as well as other professions: On average, women are paid less than men are, and promoted less often.

  • Delores Daniels