About 50 years ago, fewer than 15,000 women graduated from medical school each year. That number has skyrocketed in the last few decades, with women now making up roughly 1/3 of medical practitioners in the United States. And according to a new study by Harvard University researchers, they may be more successful at the job than their male colleagues. (Interestingly, female doctors still make about 10 percent less, on average, than male doctors).
Lead researcher Ashish K. Jha, who published his findings in JAMA Internal Medicine, examined the records of more than 1.5 million Medicare patients who were hospitalized over a four-year period, noting whether they had been treated by a male or female doctor. He found that patients treated by female doctors, no matter the condition or severity of illness, had a lower mortality rate within 30 days of arriving at the hospital and lower rates of readmission. The difference, less than half a percentage point, was small but significant.
“If male physicians had the same outcomes as female physicians, we’d have 32,000 fewer deaths in the Medicare population,” Jha wrote in a blog post about the study, noting that number is about the same as the number of Americans who die in automobile accidents each year.
Previous studies have found that female doctors were more likely to follow clinical guidelines and recommend preventative screenings, like mammograms, than male doctors. Another study found that female doctors are better at communicating with patients and that patients of female doctors report a better overall experience, but whether those factors are linked to the lower mortality rates is unknown.
The study results have sparked interesting conversations among medical professionals. On NPR, for instance, a married couple, both doctors, discussed their reactions to the results in a joint interview.
Jha concluded that finding the reason behind these results (and imparting those skills to male physicians) could improve patient care in the future. “Understanding exactly why these differences in care quality and practice patterns exist may provide valuable insights into improving quality of care for all patients, irrespective of who provides their care,” he wrote.
What do you think about these findings? Do you agree or disagree? Share in the comments below!