Older people treated as inpatients by female doctors fare significantly better than patients treated by male doctors, according to new research published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a medical journal.
The study by a team at Harvard Medical School looked at public health insurance data from the three years from January 2011 to December 2014 to explore the relationship between the sex of the treating physician and 30-day mortality and readmission rates.
The findings: based on 1,583,028 hospitalisations of patients with an average age of 80.2 years, patients treated by a female doctor had lower 30-day mortality (11.07 per cent vs. 11.49 per cent) and lower 30-day readmissions (15.02 per cent vs. 15.57 per cent).
While the percentage differences may appear modest, the findings are statistically significant because the sample size is so large. The authors say that if all doctors were achieving the outcomes seen among female physicians, there would be 32,000 fewer deaths per year in the United States.
Previous studies had suggested female doctors stuck more closely to best practice guidelines, took a more evidence-based approach to treatment, and may be more highly-rated by patients. However, the new study is the first to translate this into life and death outcomes.
Commentators have also speculated on whether female doctors get better results because they are more empathetic, better communicators or more likely to head up multidisciplinary teams which tend to have better outcomes.
“These findings suggest that the differences in practice patterns between male and female physicians, as suggested in previous studies, may have important clinical implications for patient outcomes,” say the authors.
In an editorial accompanying the publication, JAMA Internal Medicine says the findings make the gender pay gap and the disproportionately low numbers of women in top medical posts all the more galling.