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Women tend to be better physicians than men. Here’s why.

Female physicians tend to practice medicine as it should be practiced: with care and compassion.
A female physician wearing a lab coat and glasses examines medical images on a lightboard. The background consists of a green and purple abstract design.
Wiki Commons / Ed Nelson
Key Takeaways
  • Numerous studies show that patients treated by female physicians have better health outcomes.
  • Despite female physicians being as capable as their male colleagues, they earn just 76 cents for every dollar a man makes.
  • The research suggests that male doctors have much to learn from their female colleagues if they hope to achieve the best outcomes for their patients.

In a study recently published in Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers reported that female Medicare patients seen by female physicians had a lower risk of readmission and death than those seen by male physicians. The roughly quarter-percentage-point difference in mortality rate was small but significant. It translates into 5,000 potentially unnecessary deaths per year. Male patients also fared slightly better under the care of women, though the 0.08% difference in mortality was not statistically significant.

While this result may surprise members of the general public, it did not surprise scientists who have studied differences in patient outcomes.

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, is one of those researchers. As he told NBC News, women “tend to be better at communication, listening to patients, and speaking openly. Patients report that communication is better. You put these things together, and you can understand why there are small but important differences.”

In 2016, Jha was part of a study exploring differences in health outcomes by physician gender. Looking at 1,583,028 hospital visits among Medicare patients, he and his team found that mortality and readmission rates were 0.42% and 0.55% lower, respectively. In other words, if male doctors were as proficient as their female colleagues, 32,000 lives would be saved per year among Medicare patients alone.

Another study, this one from 2018, looked at more than 580,000 patients admitted to Florida emergency rooms with heart problems. It found that both male and female patients were less likely to die when treated by a female physician.

Women also appear to outperform men in the operating room, according to two studies published side-by-side last year. Researchers reviewed the medical records of more than one million patients in Canada and Sweden. They found that patients operated on by female surgeons suffered from fewer “adverse post-operative events” both 90 days and one year later. Such events included death, infections, and other complications. The differences were noticeable. Just under 21% of patients seen by female physicians had an adverse event within a year. The rate was 25% under male surgeons. More glaringly, patients treated by male surgeons were 25% more likely to die after one year.

Comparing male and female physicians

What could explain women’s apparent superiority? Studies have found that female surgeons operate more slowly than male surgeons and take fewer risks. Female physicians are more likely to follow established guidelines, better cooperate with their teams, and listen to their patients. Their appointments with patients also tend to run longer.

In short, it seems that women practice medicine as it should be practiced: with care and compassion. This approach could be one reason women are less likely than men to face malpractice claims.

Despite these findings, a sizable pay gap persists. Even when controlling for specialty, hours worked, experience, and the number of patients seen, women earn $2 million less than men during their medical careers — about 76 cents on the dollar.

To be clear, none of the studies suggests that male doctors are inherently inferior to female doctors. They do, however, suggest that men have a lot to learn from their female colleagues if they seek to achieve the best possible outcomes for their patients.

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