Patients Who Have This Type of Doctor Tend To Live Longer, New UCLA Study Finds

Updated: Apr. 22, 2024

A team of international researchers suggests there are three main reasons patients who fall into this category are experiencing better health outcomes.

When you’re establishing a new relationship with a medical practice, you might find it thoughtful for the staff to ask whether you prefer a doctor of one gender over another. It may be no surprise that in some cases, that’s a welcome question: Peer-reviewed research in 2021 found in reference to obstetrics and gynecology practices that “a significant proportion of women feel a higher comfort level with female doctors and find it easier to discuss their medical issues and develop rapport.”

That might seem natural for reproductive and sexual health…but today a new study at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) suggests that even for more general health concerns, the gender of your physician could affect the likelihood of a future hospital stay as well as earlier mortality.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine and led by Dr. Yusuke Tsugawa, MD, MPH, PhD, associate professor of Medicine and Health Policy and Management at UCLA, found a significant difference in patient outcomes when they saw a female physician. (Study co-authors were Dr. Atsushi Miyawaki of the University of Tokyo, Dr. Anupam Jena of Harvard University, and Dr. Lisa Rotenstein of UC San Francisco.)

The researchers used data from Medicare claims between 2016 and 2019 that represented 458,100 female and 319,800 male patients. About 31% of both groups were treated by female physicians, while all patients were over age 65 and were hospitalized for an urgent medical condition. The researchers then tracked the patients for hospital readmission and mortality rates following care.

The researchers found that patients who interacted with female physicians experienced lower rates of mortality and hospital readmissions than those who saw male physicians. This affected women seeing female doctors more than men seeing female doctors, but it was true for both sexes. When females saw female doctors the mortality rate was 8.15% versus 8.38% with a male physician, which a representative at UCLA says is “a clinically significant difference.”

Men benefited from seeing a female physician, as well, but the gap in mortality rate was smaller, 10.15% with female doctors, versus 10.23% with male doctors.

The trend was similar to hospital readmission rates. Females treated by females returned for treatment 15.51% of the time versus 16.01% when treated by male physicians. For men, the numbers were much closer, 15.65% with a female physician versus 15.87% with a male. While the difference between these percentages is small, they may hold weight considering there are greater than 4,000,000 Medicare hospitalizations per year.

For the study’s senior author, this suggests a concerning difference in the way that the two genders provide care. “What our findings indicate is that female and male physicians practice medicine differently, and these differences have a meaningful impact on patients’ health outcomes,” Dr. Tsugawa said. “Further research on the underlying mechanisms linking physician gender with patient outcomes, and why the benefit of receiving the treatment from female physicians is larger for female patients, has the potential to improve patient outcomes across the board,” he added.

While no one can say conclusively what caused the individuals to experience different care, a representative for Dr. Tsugawa and the study’s fellow authors have three theories: One is that females may be more comfortable speaking about sensitive issues or being able to communicate more effectively with female physicians. A UCLA representative for the study noted that “female doctors may communicate better with their female patients, making it likelier that these patients provide important information leading to better diagnoses and treatment.”

Also, a trend in healthcare that’s gaining greater awareness is that some male physicians don’t take female patients’ reports of pain as seriously as their female counterparts might, which has led to a delay in care or even an inaccurate mental illness diagnosis.

Further, studies have shown that certain conditions present differently in women than in men, but that many standards are based on research that was conducted on men. For instance, nausea and vomiting are more likely to present as female heart attack symptoms versus the classically referenced “crushing chest” sensation.

For Dr. Tsugawa, this study and those that have come before it highlight the need to address this discrepancy and see where changes can be made. “A better understanding of this topic could lead to the development of interventions that effectively improve patient care,” he said.

The researchers also call for gender gaps in physician pay to be eliminated, stating, “It is important to note that female physicians provide high-quality care, and therefore, having more female physicians benefits patients from a societal point-of-view.”

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