A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine has revealed that hospitalized patients treated by female physicians have lower rates of mortality and readmission compared to those treated by male physicians. The research, which analyzed Medicare claims data from 2016 to 2019, has sparked a discussion about the differences in medical practice between female and male doctors and their impact on patient outcomes.

The study, led by Dr. Yusuke Tsugawa from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles, found that the mortality rate for female patients treated by female doctors was 8.15%, compared to 8.38% when treated by male physicians. Although the difference may seem small, the researchers emphasize that it is clinically significant and could potentially save 5,000 women's lives each year if the gap were eliminated.

"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 Dr. Tsugawa in a press statement. "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."

The study's co-author, Dr. Lisa Rotenstein from the University of California San Francisco, pointed out that female physicians often spend more time with patients, engage in shared medical decision making, and deliver higher quality care. "We need to be asking ourselves how to provide the training and incentives so that all doctors can emulate the care provided by female physicians," she added.

This study is not the first to suggest that patient outcomes are better when treated by female physicians. Dr. Christopher Wallis, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who has researched postoperative outcomes based on the sex of both surgeon and patient, noted that numerous studies across many fields of medicine have demonstrated improved outcomes among patients treated by women physicians.

"Clearly, there will always be variation between physicians. What we are seeing here is a systematic difference in which patients treated by female physicians... fare better than those treated by male physicians," said Dr. Wallis. "It is not surprising to me to see this for a number of reasons. First, from data going back decades now, we know that women and men practice medicine differently with particular differences in communication styles and guideline adherence. It's not surprising to me to see these differences translate to patients' outcomes."

Despite the growing evidence of better patient outcomes under the care of female physicians, women only account for 37% of practicing physicians in the United States as of 2022. The specialties with the highest percentage of female physicians are pediatrics (65%) and hospice and palliative medicine (62%), while sports medicine and orthopedic surgery have the lowest percentage of female physicians (7% and 6%, respectively).

Experts in the field are calling for male physicians to reflect on their own practices and consider areas for improvement in light of these findings. Dr. Arghavan Salles, a clinical associate professor of medicine at Stanford University, emphasized the importance of male physicians approaching these data with curiosity and a willingness to identify how they can enhance the care they provide.

"If, instead, male physicians can approach these data with curiosity as to why patients may have worse outcomes in their hands, they may begin to identify how to improve the care they provide," said Dr. Salles. "For example, a study of surgeons performing cholecystectomies found patients had better outcomes when their surgeon was female, rather than male. One of the findings in that study was that surgery took just a few minutes longer when performed by female surgeons. Was that additional time spent double checking, making sure everything was fine before the end of the procedure? Was that time spent performing more careful dissection to try to prevent complications? That study did not answer those questions, but they are things to consider."

As the healthcare system continues to evolve, it is crucial to understand the factors that contribute to better patient outcomes and to implement strategies that promote the best possible care for all patients. The findings of this study underscore the importance of gender diversity in the medical profession and the need for ongoing research to identify and address disparities in patient care.

While individual patients may not necessarily need to seek out physicians of the same gender, healthcare providers and policymakers should work to ensure that all physicians, regardless of gender, are equipped with the skills and resources necessary to deliver high-quality, patient-centered care. By fostering a culture of continuous improvement and learning from the successes of female physicians, the medical community can strive to enhance patient outcomes and ultimately save lives.