Patients have slightly better survival rates when treated by female surgeons, study finds

Female surgeons may produce slightly better outcomes for patients after surgery, according to a new study, but the findings show the need for further research into what improves the postoperative outlook. 

Researchers dived into data on more than 100,000 Canadian patients undergoing one of 25 different procedures. Patients who underwent procedures with the 774 female surgeons were matched with patients with similar characteristics and comorbidities but had their procedures with 2,540 male surgeons. 

The finds suggest a small but statistically significant difference in 30-day mortality rates, 0.9% for female surgeons compared to 1% for male surgeons, according to findings published in The BMJ. 

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The median length of stay was two days for both groups of patients, but the research team found a slight statistical advantage for the female surgeons. The surgeon's gender did not impact readmission rates or postsurgical complication rates. 

"These results do not support the preferential selection of a surgeon of either sex in clinical practice," the researchers concluded. "They support the examination of surgical outcomes and mechanisms related to physicians and the underlying process and patterns of care to improve mortality, complications and readmissions for all patients." 

Outcomes for patients treated by female surgeons were never worse than those treated by male doctors, according to the study. 

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In an accompanying opinion piece, Clare Marx, immediate past president of the United Kingdom's Royal College of Surgeons, and Derek Alderson, M.D., president of the college, write that the gender of surgeons is not likely to be relevant to long-term postsurgical outcomes.

However, they note that findings like this could take on gender bias that exists in the surgical field. 

"Surgery is a specialty that continues to struggle with unconscious bias among patients and health professionals, and gender inequality persists," they write. "This study helps to combat these lingering biases by confirming the safety, skill and expertise of women surgeons relative to their male colleagues."