Can the gender of your doctor impact your health? Maybe! It turns out that doctor and patient gender can impact the doctor-patient interaction and patient outcomes. In some studies, researchers found that patients of female doctors have better outcomes. And, in general, patients report greater satisfaction with female doctors than male doctors. Should you use a female doctor? What are the differences between male and female doctors?
Female doctors approach clinical care differently than males.
When deciding if you should use a female or male doctor, it’s important to understand some key differences between how male and female doctors practice medicine.
Unsurprisingly, studies found that male and female doctors practice medicine differently, with female doctors more likely to follow clinical guidelines and evidence-based practice. Additionally, female doctors generally provide more preventive services and psychosocial counseling.
In contrast, male doctors generally spend more time on technical tasks, such as taking a medical history and performing physical exams.
Interestingly, a review of over 20 studies found that female primary care doctors spend more time listening to patients than their male colleagues. And another study reviewed records of 24.4 million primary care office visits in 2017 and found that female primary care doctors spend 15.7% more minutes with patients than their male counterparts.
In addition, as compared to male doctors, studies found that female doctors may:
- Spend more time reading electronic health records.
- Use more caution when prescribing certain medications, including pain medications.
- Perceive clinical risks more highly.
- Order more tests.
- Request more referrals.
Additionally, research suggests that female doctors are more likely than males to informally consult with colleagues. And when making clinical decisions, female doctors may focus more on reading clinical research studies and reviewing a patient’s chart.
Female doctors generally use a more humanistic approach.
In addition to clinical differences, female doctors may connect better with their patients. Firstly, female doctors communicate in a more patient-oriented style than male doctors.
Additionally, studies show that female doctors are more likely than male doctors to:
- Provide patient-centered care.
- Spend more time communicating with their patients.
- Provide more nonverbal feedback.
- Show higher levels of empathic concern.
Importantly, these traits help female doctors develop “humanistic relationships” with their patients. This humanistic approach may encourage patients to share medical information, and foster stronger relationships among health team members, both of which can improve patient care.
Gender differences among primary care doctors.
Do you need to use a female doctor to get top-notch primary care? Certainly, you can receive excellent primary care services from both male and female doctors. But you should know that, in general, there are differences in how each gender practices.
For instance, one study examined the impact of both the patient and doctor gender to identify any potential impact on primary care services. The study reviewed appointments of 40,000+ adult patients and 1,470 primary care doctors, held between 1985-1992.
The researchers found that as compared to male doctors, female doctors:
- Had longer visit durations.
- Were more likely to performed female-based prevention procedures.
- Were more likely to make follow-up care arrangements and referrals.
Interestingly, the appointment length was longer when the gender of the doctor matched the gender of the patient. Other than these factors, the researchers in this study found few other differences in care between male and female doctors.
Another study, published in 2009, found that female doctors were more likely to discuss general health prevention activities than male doctors, especially issues most would consider sensitive.
Do female doctors order more preventive screenings?
If you use a female doctor, you might have an increased chance of staying on track with your preventive care.
For example, a 1993 study found that women with female doctors were more likely to receive mammograms and Pap smears than those with male doctors. Interestingly, for both Pap smears and mammography, the differences in screening rates between female and male doctors were much greater in internal medicine and family practice than in obstetrics and gynecology.
But does the difference in screening rates come from differences in the patients or the doctors? To answer that, a 1997 study evaluated female patients to determine their education, financial status, employment, and assertiveness towards doctors. The researchers found women who see male doctors had very similar characteristics to those who see female doctors. However, importantly, the analysis showed that patients of male doctors had a 2-fold reduction in mammogram screening, as compared to those with female doctors.
Of course, no matter the gender of your doctor, you should make yourself aware of what screenings you may need. Then discuss your screening schedule with your doctors.
Any difference between male and female surgeons?
Should you care about the gender of your surgeon? Maybe, particularly if you are female.
Interestingly, recent research found that when a patient of one gender undergoes surgery by a doctor of the opposite sex, there is a slight, but significant, increase in adverse health outcomes (death, readmission, or complication within 30-day following surgery). Importantly, this difference is mostly driven by worse outcomes among female patients treated by male surgeons.
A few more differences between male and female doctors.
Several other studies found gender based differences in care received:
- Among doctors similar in age and training, a study found that male doctors discussed hormone replacement therapy significantly more often than female doctors.
- One study found diabetes patients of female doctors received similar quality of care compared with patients treated by male doctors. Yet another study, found that patients with Type 2 diabetes received an overall better quality of care from female doctors.
- A study of chronic heart failure patients found that female doctors were more likely to follow guidelines for recommended medication use. They found that female doctors treated male and female patients similarly. But male doctors used significantly less medication and lower doses for their female patients.
- One study found that intimate exams, such as prostate or vaginal exams, are performed less frequently when patients are a different gender than their doctor.
- Researchers found male doctors prescribe medication more often than female doctors, especially for sedatives for female patients.
Do female doctors have better outcomes?
It appears that patients of female doctors might do slightly better than those with male doctors. But the evidence is not overwhelming.
In one study, researchers examined the 30-day mortality and readmission rates for 1.5+ million elderly patients hospitalized between 2011-2014.
The study, published in 2017, found that patients treated by female doctors had lower 30-day mortality rates and lower 30-day hospital readmissions, as compared to patients treated by male doctors. Interestingly, the differences were evident for 8 common medical conditions, and for all levels of illness severity.
However, another study, published in 2021, showed the difference in outcomes might not be significant. Researchers evaluated records of over 171,000 hospitalized patients and found that patients treated by female doctors had lower in-hospital mortality rates, after adjusting or hospital and patient characteristics. However, the difference was not statistically significant after they adjusted for doctor characteristics, such as years of experience and training.
A study published in 2010 evaluated process-based quality of care measures for over 10,000 doctors in Massachusetts, using data from over 1.1 million adult patients seen between 2004-2005. The researchers found that 3 characteristics – being female, board certified, and graduation from a US medical school – were each associated with significantly higher performance.
However, the study’s authors point out that the difference in overall performance between the average doctor with these 3 characteristics (female, board-certified, US trained), and a doctor with the worse combination (male, noncertified, foreign trained) is only 5.9%.
Lastly, a study, published in 2018, evaluated over 580,000 heart attack patients admitted to Florida hospitals between 1991-2010. Researchers found that mortality rates for both male and female patients were lower when the treating doctor was female. Alarmingly for women, female patients treated by male doctors had the highest mortality rates.
Should you use a female doctor?
That’s a tough question. Of course, there are male and female doctors who provide great care. And there are male doctors who communicate well, and female doctors who don’t. The most important thing is to use qualified doctors who provide you with the care and respect you deserve and need.
In my opinion, having the technical skills and experience is only part of the puzzle. To provide excellent care, your doctors should listen to you intently, answer questions in a way you can understand, and demonstrate concern.
Personally, almost all of my doctors are women. As a whole, I find my female doctors listen to my concerns, answer my questions, and don’t rush me out of appointments. That being said, I’ve had great male doctors as well.
Additionally, no matter the gender of your doctors, you must engage in the process to help yourself get the best care possible. Read these blog posts for more information:
- Understanding Medical Information Is Harder Than Most Realize.
- 10 Tips for a Better Medical Appointment.
- 10 Tips to Communicate Better with Doctors.
- 6 Tips to Better Manage Your Care.
- What is the Best Time of Day for Medical Care?
- How Can You Get the Best Healthcare? Actively Participate!
NOTE: I updated this post on 12-20-21.