The Gender of the Doctor You Choose Might Help You Live Longer


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Since all doctors go through more or less the same training, you would hope that you're gonna get the same care no matter who you choose. But a new study published in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) suggests that might not be the case: After studying more than a million elderly patients in hospitals for three years, they found that there's a noticeable difference between the care male doctors and female doctors give. Patients treated by female doctors were generally better off -- on average, they lived longer and were less likely to return to the hospital after their treatment.

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The results are definitely shocking, but there are a couple caveats to consider: First, the study only looked at elderly patients in hospitals, so it's not clear yet if the same results would be reflected in the general population.

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Second, the results make it seem like all male doctors are bad, and that's obviously not the case. It's the pattern we're talking about here, not necessarily the quality of individual doctors.

And third, the study didn't look at the behavior of doctors, per se -- they just reported the rates of mortality and rehospitalization in the patients. From that, they postulated that their findings had something to do with the quality of the doctors themselves. The correlation between patient outcome and the doctor's gender is strong, but the study didn't take a guess at why it might be. 

However, they did cite previous evidence that suggests female and male doctors approach medicine differently -- as the study outlines in its introduction, female physicians "may be more likely to adhere to clinical guidelines, provide preventive care more often, use more patient-centered communication, perform as well or better on standardized examinations, and provide more psychosocial counseling to their patients than do their male peers."

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All that apparently adds up to measurable differences -- the study's authors guess that if male doctors could treat patients the way female doctors do, 32,000 lives could be saved each year.

Obviously, that's a lot of people. In order to encourage male doctors to make changes, though, we'd still need more specifics about what it is, exactly, that give women such a higher rate of success.

It's also interesting that we're having this conversation in the middle of all the talk about the pay gap across the board and the gender disparity in STEM fields. Right now, only a third of working doctors are women, and that's just in general. In fields like orthopedics, cardiology, and neurosurgery, a much smaller percentage of doctors are women, according to NPR.

The pay gap is there, too. The national average still has women making 80 cents for every man's dollar (and when you pull out black or latina women, the gap is a lot bigger than 20 cents). In medicine (academic medicine, specifically), JAMA editorial points out that men are more likely to be ranked higher and receive more funding than women. Women's salaries, too, are 8 percent lower.

And yet, they're performing better.

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Clearly, there's a lot to be fixed in medicine -- if it's true that care from male doctors could be affecting the lives of patients, then that's not acceptable. And if it's true that women are, on average, better doctors and their salaries don't reflect it, that's also not acceptable.

The first step, we think, is to see if this pattern extends into general care. Then we want to know what we (or doctors) need to do to fix it -- because clearly, something needs to be fixed.

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