Boston: Elderly patients treated by female physicians in hospitals are less likely to die or to be readmitted, according to Harvard researchers, including one of Indian-origin.
The research is the first to document differences in how male and female physicians treat patients result in different outcomes for hospitalised patients in the US.
Researchers estimated that if male physicians may achieve the same outcomes as their female colleagues, there would be 32,000 fewer deaths each year – a number comparable to the annual number of motor vehicle accident deaths nationally.
“The difference in mortality rates surprised us. The gender of the physician appears to be particularly significant for the sickest patients,” said lead author Yusuke Tsugawa from Harvard University in the US.
“These findings indicate that potential differences in practice patterns between male and female physicians may have important clinical implications,” said Tsugawa.
Previous studies have found differences in the way female and male physicians practice – for example, female physicians are more likely to adhere to clinical guidelines and provide more patient-centred communication.
The researchers analysed data from more than one million people aged 65 years or older who were hospitalised with a medical condition and were treated by general internists between 2011 and 2014.
They adjusted for differences in patient and physician characteristics and considered whether differences in patient outcomes varied by specific condition or by severity of illness.
The researchers found that the patients, if treated by a female physician, had a four per cent lower relative risk of dying prematurely and a five per cent lower relative risk of being readmitted to a hospital within 30 days.
The association was seen across a wide variety of clinical conditions and variations in severity of illness.
When the researchers restricted their analysis to hospitalists – physicians focused on hospital care, to whom patients are randomly assigned based on work schedule – the results remained consistent, suggesting that patient selection, in which healthier patients might choose certain types of doctors, did not explain the results.
Female physicians now account for about one third of the US physician workforce and comprise half of all US medical school graduates.
There are important gender differences in how women physicians are treated – they are less likely to be promoted and are generally paid less, said Ashish Jha from Harvard.
“There was ample evidence that male and female physicians practice medicine differently. Our findings suggest that those differences matter and are important to patient health,” said Jha.
The study was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.