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Patients Treated by Women Doctors Are Less Likely to Die

A new study of 1.5 million medical cases puts a fine point on the advantages of having a woman in charge of your care.

Gigen Mammoser

Image: UniversalImagesGroup/Getty

A new study from Harvard suggests that if male doctors were as effective as their female counterparts, 32,000 fewer deaths would happen every year among Medicare patients alone. (That's comparable to the number of people who die in car accidents in the US every year, or the number of those who die as a result of gun violence.) Patients treated by women doctors are also less likely to be readmitted to the hospital after discharge.

Researchers analyzed information from more than 1.5 million hospitalizations records of US Medicare patients 65 and older, assessing them according to the gender of the doctor, and found significant differences in care. Looking at 30-day mortality rates (whether patients died within 30 days of hospital admission) and 30-day readmission rates (whether patients had to be readmitted within 30 days of discharge), women doctors had better outcomes across the board than their male counterparts.

Although there is already a body of research about the differences in male and female medical practice—some of it alleging that women doctors operate in a more by-the-book fashion than male doctors—there is almost none that has examined mortality rates based on gender of the doctor.

Researchers accounted for a variety of factors to explain their findings, including the possibility that male doctors deal with more seriously ill patients than females. However, they concluded that even across a range of medical conditions and severity of illness, the results remained consistent.

"It is possible that higher adherence to clinical guidelines and more patient-centered communications of female physicians may have led to lower patient mortality and readmissions," says lead author Yusuke Tsugawa, a research associate at Harvard's Chan School of Public Health.

And as tempting as it is to gloat, or come up with other theories about why this is, Tsugawa cautions that there's a significant amount of work to do before we really know why the effect exists.