Study suggests gender bias by women physicians can influence care decisions

If you're a female doctor you might be making different decisions about the best treatment settings for your patients than your male counterparts, according to a new study.

Published in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, the study found a female patient treated by a female physician is less likely to be admitted to the ICU compared to a male patient being treated by a male physician.

Of course, gender differences cut both ways, as other studies have found better outcomes when patients are treated by female doctors. A study last year found female surgeons may produce slightly better outcomes for patients after surgery and a 2016 study found 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.

In this new study, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka University Medical Center, both in Israel, looked at how male and female physicians use the scarce resource of ICU beds. The ICU is a closed unit at Soroka, with only specific physicians able to admit patients.

The study followed 831 patients admitted to the resuscitation room in the emergency department at Soroka from 2011 to 2012 and found female physicians treating women were less likely to admit their patients to the hospital's restricted ICU, where beds and other resources are limited.

Iftach Sagy, M.D. (AABGU)

Female physicians admitted approximately 20% fewer of their female patients to the ICU than did male physicians, and 12% fewer female patients than male patients to the intensive cardiac care unit.

RELATED: Older patients treated by female docs less likely to die 

“Previous studies show physicians are less likely to recognize symptoms that present differently in women, such as atypical chest pains, which can alter patient management and postpone delivery of crucial treatment,” said the study’s lead author Iftach Sagy, M.D., in an announcement by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University.

“Current studies on the outcomes of critically ill patients show better outcomes for men,” he added. “Women often have less-invasive procedures in both the emergency department and the ICU, which seems to contribute to a lower rate of ICU admission compared to men with the same illness level.”

However, the research stops short of delving into possible consequences of the bias.