Abstract cartoon of a nurse giving a shot to a patient

Patients who have a female doctor are less likely to die in the days after being admitted to the hospital and less likely to be readmitted to the hospital than patients who have a male doctor — and the benefit is especially noticeable for female patients, according to a UCLA study published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.   

Female patients treated by female doctors had a lower mortality rate than female patients treated by male doctors, 8.15% compared with 8.38% — a clinically significant difference that, when taking into account the millions of Americans hospitalized each year, amounts to one death averted for each 420 patients.

The difference in the benefit for male patients was smaller, but still measurable. Male patients treated by a female physician had a 10.15% mortality rate compared with male patients treated by a male physician, who had a 10.23% mortality rate. 

The differences in hospital readmission rates were similar. 

“At a population level, it should have a meaningful impact on patient outcomes,” said the study’s senior author Dr. Yusuke Tsugawa, an associate professor in medicine and health policy at UCLA.

The study analyzed Medicare claims records of nearly 780,000 older Americans who were hospitalized between 2016 and 2019 and treated by hospitalists — the doctors who treat people in hospitals. About 59% of the patients were female and 41% were male. Roughly 31% of the patients were treated by a female physician. Researchers looked at 30-day mortality from the day they were admitted to the hospital, and 30-day readmission from the day they were admitted. 

The findings build on previous research that found that elderly U.S. patients who were treated by female internists had lower mortality rates than patients treated by male internists. Previous studies have found that female and male doctors practice medicine differently, including that female physicians are more likely to adhere to clinical guidelines and evidence-based practice.

The new study builds on that by also looking at concordance of gender between patients and their physicians — whether female patients benefit more from having a female doctor, for instance.

It’s not clear exactly why patients, especially female patients, have better outcomes under the care of a female physician. But researchers theorize it could be because female doctors may communicate better with patients, and male doctors may underestimate the severity of female patients’ illness and pain levels, which could lead to delayed or incomplete care.

Tsugawa said the takeaway for patients is not that they should choose a doctor based on gender alone. Patients should still consider factors like the physician’s clinical experience and the way they communicate with patients, he said. 

Further study is needed to better understand why mortality and readmission rates differ in patients treated by female versus male physicians, he said.

“A better understanding of the mechanisms could lead to interventions that can potentially improve patient outcomes,” he said.