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Female versus male doctors: Does it really matter in the bigger picture?

 Female versus male doctors: Does it really matter in the bigger picture? (Photo: iStock)

When you randomly need to see a medic, it’s likely you end up seeing either a male or a female doctor purely by chance. You can obviously bypass the randomness of whoever sees you by pre-selecting your doctor’s gender ahead of time.

But does it really matter if the doctor is male or female in terms of your health outcomes? Some think so, others aren’t so convinced.

Well, this question has recently been subjected to scientific research. I won’t bog you down with all the details about how the research was conducted. But it helps to know the research study was conducted in North America, involving close to a million patients, all treated by about 50,000 physicians. As may be expected, male doctors outnumbered female doctors by a factor of just over two.

So what were the findings? Overall, patients seen by female doctors did better. There were fewer deaths and overall lower rates of being re-admitted to the hospital when the physician was female. The effects were even larger when female patients were cared for by female doctors. For male patients, the overall observations weren’t too dissimilar regardless of the sex of the physician who took care of them.

So are female doctors really better than male doctors? The study quoted cannot answer this question in a comprehensive and conclusive manner. If you interpret the data in a simplistic manner, you’d have to conclude that female doctors are actually better.

Female doctors may be more attentive to patients, or better in other clinically relevant analytics. It may also be that there are other biases within the research data that point to better outcomes with female physicians.

For the sake of inferring the study’s findings, female doctors appear to trounce their male counterparts. This is more so when they treat female patients. If you are a female, you may now have an additional reason to desire only female clinicians. And if you are a man? Well, it may not matter so much, but no harm in biasing yourself towards female clinicians.

Don’t overthink the above and suddenly start avoiding physicians of a certain gender though. For starters, many people will not have the luxury of choosing the gender of the doctors they see. The next consideration is the reason for needing to see a doctor and their respective speciality. Many medical specialities have a good mix of genders, but others have a predominance of one against the other.

So you may be searching for a female, or indeed a male, and not actually end up with your preference. The real choice should be about your doctor’s competence. If you are seeing a quack, it matters little if they are male or female. You’ll still end up poorly.

Dr Alfred Murage is a Consultant Gynaecologist and Fertility Specialist.

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