Older patients treated by female docs less likely to die

Women doctors
New research indicates that 32,000 fewer patients would die if male physicians could achieve the same outcomes as female physicians every year.

Older patients who are hospitalized have a better chance for survival and are less likely to return to the hospital after discharge if they receive care from female internists, a new study shows.

Patients of female physicians had lower mortality and readmission rates across 8 medical conditions studied that ranged from arrhythmia to sepsis, according to research published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine. The findings suggest that women doctors provide better care to patients.

Researchers, led by Dr. Yusuke Tsugawa of the Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, analyzed the records of 1.5 million hospital visits among Medicare patients from January 1, 2011, through December 31, 2014. Patients treated by female doctors had lower 30-day mortality rates (11.07% vs. 11.49%) and lower 30-day readmissions (15.02% vs. 15.57%) than those cared for by male doctors.

Although the differences may be modest, the authors estimated that 32,000 fewer patients would die if male physicians could achieve the same outcomes as female physicians every year.

Yet, Vineet Arora, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, who wasn't associated with the study, told The Washington Post, that there could be multiple reasons for the differences in outcomes. “It could be something the doctor is doing. It could be something about how the patient is reacting to the doctor,” Arora told the publication. “It’s really hard to say. It's probably multi-factorial.”

Researchers, however, said in the study it’s important to understand why these differences in care quality and practice patterns occur. “It may provide valuable insights into improving quality of care for all patients, irrespective of who provides their care,” they wrote.

Although the study indicates women physicians may provide better care, they aren't compensated for it. Studies show female physicians earn far less than their male counterparts. Indeed, in an accompanying editorial in JAMA, physicians from the Department of Internal Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, write that female physicians not only receive less pay, they also are less likely than men to reach the rank of full professor.

“These findings that female internists provide higher quality care for hospitalized patients yet are promoted, supported, and paid less than male peers in the academic setting should push us to create systems that promote equity in start-up packages, career advancement, and remuneration for all physicians,” write Dr. Anna L. Parks and Dr. Rita F. Redberg.

In addition to the pay differences, women physicians also struggle to receive the same level of respect as men. Nearly one in three women in academic medicine reports being sexually harassed, according to a research published earlier this year in JAMA. And this fall women physicians were up in arms when a flight attendant turned down the help of a young black female doctor because she assumed she couldn’t be an actual physician.