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Are Women Better Doctors?

Possibly. At the risk of alienating half the prospective students aspiring to get their MD, a recent widely-publicized study on the effects of physician gender on patient outcomes suggests that women could in fact be better doctors, and yet, as is often the case, the picture is more gray than black or white.

The study, conducted by Harvard researchers and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that “elderly hospitalized patients treated by female internists have lower mortality and readmissions compared with those cared for by male internists.” They based their research on a random sample of about 1.5 million Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries, age 65 and older, who had been hospitalized over a four-year period.

The authors acknowledge that previous studies have shown that women are more likely to adhere to clinical guidelines, focus on prevention, and provide psychosocial counseling than male physicians are. Patient outcomes had never been included in any of those studies, however.

When the researchers in the Harvard study looked at outcomes, they found that patients treated by female internists had an 11.07 percent mortality rate, as opposed to 11.49 percent when treated by a male internist. Their readmission rates were 15.02 percent with a female doctor and 15.57 with a male.

Dr. Vineet Arora, a hospitalist who teaches at The University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, thinks the effects are “multi-factorial” rather than solely the result of the physician’s gender. In an interview with the Washington Post, she explains that it does tell her in much more definitive terms that women are at least as good as men at practicing medicine and should receive the same compensation for their work. In case you’re wondering—they don’t.

In the same article, Dr. William Weeks, a psychiatrist at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, told the Post that most doctors work in teams, not individually, so patients could have be treated by doctors of both male and female team members. To designate the “gender” of the team of physicians being observed in the study, the Harvard researchers selected the doctor responsible for the greatest share of the hospital billing. To Dr. Weeks, the results of their study deserve to be pursued further and underscore “that female doctors should be paid equally.”