Do women make better physicians? New study finds patients with female doctors have a lower risk of death and hospital readmission rates.

Female physicians with female patient
Female physicians may be better than male physicians at establishing a good rapport with their patients. (Getty Images)

Are patients in better hands if they’re being treated by female physicians? Yes, according to one new study. Although the positive impact was greater in female patients — particularly those who were severely ill — the research revealed that both men and women under the care of female doctors generally had a lower risk of death and lower 30-day hospital readmission rates. The study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, used a nationally representative sample of more than 700,000 Medicare patients aged 65 years or older who were hospitalized during 2016 to 2019, and treated by hospitalists, who are doctors that work exclusively in hospitals.

“In our opinion, female physicians may be better than male physicians at making rapport with female patients and effective communication with patients, leading to more likely agreement about advice provided,” Dr. Atsushi Miyawaki, co-author of the study and lecturer at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Also, female physicians may have fewer gender biases than male physicians in assessment of symptoms and illness against female patients, leading to the possibility to notice changes in severely ill female patients earlier.”

This isn’t the first study to find that a doctor’s gender can affect patient care. A December 2021 JAMA Surgery study found that female patients had worse outcomes when treated by male physicians, but the same wasn’t true for male patients treated by female physicians. A 2018 study found that male doctors underestimated stroke risk in female patients, while female physicians did well in assessing stroke risk in women. And a 2017 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that female physicians are more likely to adhere to clinical guidelines and evidence-based practice compared to male physicians.

How do female and male doctors differ in their approach to patient care?

Miyawaki says that, based on previous research in this area, there are several reasons why female patients may be treated differently by male doctors compared to female physicians, including communication challenges and gender biases in assessing the severity of symptoms or an illness. Another factor Miyawaki references is medical education: “Limited medical training in women's health issues in general curricula may exacerbate these problems. Due to this traditional pattern in medical training, it may be possible for male physicians in particular to have a limited understanding of female-specific issues.”

Women’s health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider tells Yahoo Life that she’s not surprised by the study’s findings. “Gender bias and sex disparity is long established in the field of health care,” she says. “Studies in the past have shown that female patients are more likely to have their concerns dismissed by health care providers, more likely to have their pain underestimated and heart symptoms not taken as seriously as their male counterparts. On average, female physicians will be less likely to dismiss the symptoms of female patients, and as a result — [provide] a more thorough investigation and workup.”

Female primary care physicians (PCPs) also spend more time per visit with both male and female patients compared to male doctors, which results in a loss of revenue for them, according to a 2020 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Other studies have suggested that female PCPs may use this additional time to take a more thorough patient history, engage in shared decision making, provide more detailed explanations and use more evidence-based, patient-centered communication approaches,” the study authors wrote.

Dr. Arghavan Salles, a clinical associate professor of medicine at Stanford whose research focuses on gender equity, tells Yahoo Life that research dating back decades shows female doctors are more likely to ask about social circumstances and other factors that may affect people’s health aside from whether they’re taking their medications or not. “Female physicians are more likely to have a collaborative approach with their patients,” she says. “They’re more likely to consult specialists about their patient’s care. It speaks to a design to optimize the care of the patients and recognize that we don’t always know everything. In doing that, they may be more likely to provide appropriate care for patients.”

Do some patients feel more comfortable sharing personal health information with female doctors?

Based on his own experiences as a physician, study author Miyawaki believes this is the case. “Some female patients may find it easier to communicate female-specific health issues — such as urologic, gynecologic and breast problems — to a female physician or receive examinations involving private body parts from a female physician,” he says. “It is also known that female physicians tend to have communication patterns that value empathy with patients.”

Dr. Allison Heinen, assistant professor of hospital medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, agrees: “It is easy to see that patients may feel more comfortable sharing sensitive information with a physician who they view as more like themselves and able to understand their concerns on a more personal level.”

Should women try to seek out female doctors when possible?

Heinen says that many female patients are already doing this because they feel more comfortable with a female physician for a variety of reasons. “I think the most important attribute you should seek when choosing a physician," Heinen says, "is someone who will take the time to listen to your concerns and address them adequately, regardless of their gender or your gender.”

Wider agrees that finding an attentive doctor, whether they’re a man or a woman, is key. “I think if a patient is unhappy with the care of her current provider, seeking out a different health care provider who listens to her and takes her concerns seriously is of the utmost importance,” she says. “According to this study, a person may have more luck with a female provider.”

However, Salles believes that it can be challenging in some cases to find doctors who are women. “We have to recognize that there are not as many women physicians as there are men physicians, so in some places that may not be an option,” she says. “Or if you’re in the hospital, as in the context of this study, and you’re assigned to someone. So there are situations in which we don’t really have a choice.”

She adds, “As far as, should women seek out other women physicians? It’s a choice. I personally do that for a lot of reasons, mainly related to comfort and having a common ground and relatability.”

So what can physicians, in particular male doctors, learn from this?

Being aware of certain biases is an important first step. “From this study, we can all recognize that implicit biases may play a role in how we as physicians perceive a patient’s health concern and the steps we take to address that concern,” Heinen says. “Physicians and patients should also take note that female physicians provide the same quality of care as their male colleagues, and as this study suggests, the care might even be better for female patients admitted to female physicians, especially when being treated for a high severity illness.”

A 2023 commentary in JAMA pointed to research that suggests that women surgeons, for example, are more likely to use “patient-centered decision-making, [are] more willing to collaborate and more carefully select patients for surgery.” According to researchers, “these differences might translate into different outcomes for female and male surgeons.”

But when symptoms and health risks in female patients are underestimated by doctors, the authors of that study pointed out that it can result in delayed or incomplete care, “ultimately leading to poorer patient outcomes.” The researchers also noted that “ineffective communication hinders patients from providing crucial information for accurate diagnoses and treatment, potentially leading to suboptimal outcomes.”

Miyawaki says it’s important for male physicians to recognize that these problems can occur when they see a female patient. “Gender bias and communication challenges are often implicit,” he says. “Recognizing this will be the starting point to resolve these challenges.”

Salles says it’s understandable if some male physicians feel a bit defensive when they see studies like this latest one and suggests approaching these findings with curiosity instead. “These differences in how men and women physicians approach their work could be translating into different outcomes,” she says. “It could be helpful for men physicians to be curious about what their women colleagues are doing differently and maybe learn what they’re doing to provide better care.”

But regardless of a doctor’s gender, says Salles, “all physicians want to provide the best possible care to their patients.”