March 29, 2017

Female doctors may have an edge

20 December 2016, 12:42 | Elizabeth Houston

The Atlantic crunched the numbers and reported the discrepancy in care means 32,000 fewer Medicare patients alone would die every year if they had women doctors - or, as the outlet wrote, "male physicians were as adept as females".

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

They also cited studies that showed that women doctors "are more encouraging and reassuring, and have longer visits than male physicians", and that ironically the very behaviors that lead to these better patient outcomes are discouraged by pay-for-performance initiatives that stress increasing the volume of patient encounters in a given day. They also were more likely to have training in osteopathic medicine and to have treated fewer patients. Sepsis is a leading killer of elderly patients and costs more than $20 billion a year to treat.

There was a similar disparity in readmission rates, or 15.02% for patients with female doctors and 15.57% for those with male doctors. For the study, researchers examined hospital readmissions and mortality data for a random sample of traditional Medicare beneficiaries 65 or older who ended up in acute-care hospitals from January 1, 2011, through December 31, 2014.

The results revealed that being treated by a female doctor reduced the risk of death by 4 percent and decreased the rate of readmission by 5 percent.

JAMA Internal Medicine editor Rita F. Redberg, MD, and editorial fellow Anna L. Parks, MD, both of the University of California San Francisco, took Tsugawa's study as evidence for a need for change in a system that still pays women less and gives them lower odds of attaining full professorship in academic medicine.

The Harvard researchers analyzed more than 1.5 million patient hospitalizations.

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"Despite evidence suggesting that female physicians may provide higher-quality care, some have argued that career interruptions for child-rearing, higher rates of part-time employment, and greater tradeoffs between home and work responsibilities may compromise the quality of care provided by female physicians and justify higher salaries among male physicians", she wrote in a commentary.

Women account for just one-third of USA physicians, but the results of a new study suggests that's not the only gender gap in medicine.

Jha said he hopes the study will spur constructive conversation.

The study can not identify why female physicians appear to have better patient outcomes than male physicians.

More effective communication has been linked with higher rates of patient satisfaction, lower readmissions, and better adherence to therapeutic recommendations. This method filtered out patients who were able to choose their doctors.

So it's not clear whether the same gender differences would be seen in other circumstances, Jha said.

The study does not prove that women are better doctors than men, but it does suggest many have professional habits that all doctors could learn from, he said.

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