Elderly people treated by female physicians while in the hospital are less likely to die or end up back in the hospital than those treated by male doctors, a new study has found.
The study, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, included a massive sample of almost 1.6 million hospitalizations of people on Medicare. The average patient age was 80.2. The sample included 961,616 hospitalizations of women and 621,412 hospitalizations of men. The study’s authors examined those hospitalized for eight common medical conditions and accounted for possible factors that may have influenced outcomes, such as multiple illnesses within one patient.
“Patients of female physicians had lower mortality and readmission rates across all medical conditions we examined, although the magnitude of the difference varied by condition and was not always statistically significant,” the authors wrote. “Patients of female physicians had lower mortality for sepsis (23.05 percent v. 25.09 percent), pneumonia (10.11 percent v. 11.03 percent), acute renal failure (12.54 percent v. 13.3 percent) and arrhythmia (5.08 percent v. 6.02 percent); however, we did not observe a statistically significant difference in mortality for congestive heart failure, urinary tract infection, and gastrointestinal bleeding.”
The study also demonstrated fewer hospital readmissions for patients treated by women doctors.
The authors, from the department of internal medicine at University of California, San Francisco, said previous studies have suggested that female physicians may provide a higher quality of care despite not being paid the same as men. Their goal was to see if empirical data backs up claims that female physicians perform better, especially since pay increasingly is supposed to be tied to patient outcomes.
“Female physicians now account for approximately one-third of the U.S. physician workforce and comprise half of all U.S. medical school graduates,” the authors wrote. “Despite evidence suggesting that female physicians may provide higher-quality care, some have argued that career interruptions for childrearing, higher rates of part-time employment, and greater tradeoffs between home and work responsibilities may compromise the quality of care provided by female physicians and justify higher salaries among male physicians.”
In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Anna Parks and Dr. Rita Redberg, also of the University of California, San Francisco, say the work of their colleagues shows that the opposite is true.
“Tsugawa et al. suggest that these improved outcomes may be the result of female physicians’ greater reliance on clinical guidelines, but such adherence does not always equate with quality or value of care, so additional attributes should be examined,” Parks and Redberg argued. “Previous work has shown that female physicians have a more patient-centered communication style, are more encouraging and reassuring, and have longer visits than male physicians.”
Yet previous research has shown that female physicians in academia (at teaching hospitals) make about $20,000 per year less than their male counterparts. “In a system that is increasingly focused on pay for performance, behaviors that lead to improved outcomes are rewarded, which might narrow the pay gap between the genders,” Parks and Redberg wrote. “Moreover, these findings that female internists provide higher quality of care for hospitalized patients yet are promoted, supported, and paid less than male peers in the academic setting should push us to create systems that promote equity in start-up packages, career advancement, and remuneration for all physicians.”