Female Physicians: Studying the Gender Gap

A new study published last week in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed some interesting findings – apparently patients seen by female physicians have lower death readmission rates. Although it’s not to say that men can’t practice medicine, there are several considerations made by the study that might help the internal medicine community overall.

The authors of the study, a group of Harvard researchers wrote that roughly 32,000 fewer patients would die each year “if male physicians could achieve the same outcomes as female physicians.” As with any study touting statistics and sweeping claims, it’s important to understand how this data breaks down and actually holds weight.

female physicians

Studies report female physicians are better at serving elderly patients.

Breaking Down the Statistics

To start, researchers looked at a random sample of Medicare beneficiaries older than 65 who were admitted to acute-care hospitals starting on January 1st, 2011 through December 31st, 2014. The data consisted of just over 1.5 million hospitalizations and represented a total of 58,344 physicians, a third of whom were women.

The mortality rates of those treated by women were 11.07% compared to 11.49% when overseen by a male physician. Readmission rates were 15.02% under female physician care rather than the 15.57% of men.

Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health and a co-author of the study had this to say:

“I want us to try to understand why this difference exists and what that means for improving hospital care. I don’t want people to somehow walk away thinking men can’t practice medicine.”

Notably, the data was adjusted to account for the varying characteristics of hospitals and the specifics of each patient, including aspects of the physicians themselves independent of sex like years of experience. Such adjustments essentially ensure that female physicians weren’t simply dealing with healthier patients. Other key factors were that the average ages of male and female physicians were 47.8 and 42.8 years respectively. Men were also less likely to have training in osteopathic medicine and to have seen a greater number of patients throughout their careers.

Take Away Points for Female Physicians

Despite these differences, the authors say they don’t necessarily explain the discrepancies in readmission and mortality rates based on a physician’s sex. Still, the study doesn’t identify any specific causes as much as it acknowledges that there are differences in the way female physicians practice medicine compared to their male counterparts. Dr. Jha also commented,

“We need to know, is that what really explains these outcomes differences? If the answer is yes, I think that’s good news, because it means all of us can get better if we focus on those issues.”

female physicians

It’s unclear what exactly allows female physicians to reduce their readmission and mortality rates. Communication may be key.

While previous research has concluded that women tend to adhere more closely to clinical guidelines, there are still other studies that illustrate inequalities such as compensation and other rewards like promotions. Nonetheless, women are generally thought of as being better communicators, especially when it comes to providing care for others. Although this study provides some insight into internal medicine, it’s unclear whether physician gender also affects things like surgical outcomes, outpatient cases, and other specialist situations.

Still, learning how physicians vary in their day to day practice of medicine can help everyone gain a better understanding of how to provide the best patient outcomes. For now, we’ll have to investigate how and why female physicians are having more success when it comes to caring for elderly patients.

Author: Connor Smith

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