Women do better with female physicians, and men benefit, too, study finds

If you’re feeling ill, you might want to see a female physician.

While not necessarily transferable to younger populations, a new study has shown treatment by female physicians for a representative sample of Medicare patients had a clinically significant improvement in outcomes, both in terms of mortality and readmission rates.

The benefit of such female physician treatment was greater for female patients than men, the study also showed.

Previous studies had shown treatment by female physicians leads to improved communication, better rapport and greater agreement in advice provided for female patients, but such studies were inconclusive for male patients.

In the new study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the mortality rate for female patients was 8.15% when treated by female physicians versus 8.38% when the physician was male. Differences were particularly noticeable among more sick female patients.

While the difference for male patients was smaller, female physicians still had the edge with a 10.15% mortality rate compared with male doctors’ 10.23% rate.

For hospital readmissions, both women and men had a lower rate of adjusted readmission when treated by a female physician.

For female patients, the readmission rate was 15.51% for those treated by a female physician and 16.01% for those treated by a male doctor, a difference described as “clinically important.” For male patients, there was not a statistically significant difference when treated either by a male or female physician.

“Taken together, these findings suggest that treatment by female physicians may have a beneficial impact on female patients (especially severely ill female patients) but not necessarily on male patients,” the study authors said.

In terms of better outcomes for female patients being treated by a female physician, the paper pointed to male doctors potentially underestimating the severity of their female patients’ illnesses. Prior research has noted that male doctors underestimate their female patients’ pain levels, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular symptoms, and stroke risk, which could lead to delayed or incomplete care, the study authors wrote.

Female doctors also may communicate better with their female patients, making it more likely such patients provide important information leading to better diagnoses and treatment. Finally, female patients may be more comfortable with receiving sensitive examinations and engaging in detailed conversations with female physicians.

“What our findings indicate is that female and male physicians practice medicine differently, and these differences have a meaningful impact on patients' health outcomes,” said Yusuke Tsugawa, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor-in-residence of medicine in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles and the study’s senior author. “Further research on the underlying mechanisms linking physician gender with patient outcomes, and why the benefit of receiving the treatment from female physicians is larger for female patients, has the potential to improve patient outcomes across the board.”

As part of an overall process to encourage more female physicians because of their ability to provide high quality care, gender gaps in physician pay should be eliminated, Tsugawa also noted.