New research shows that when a health crisis hits, a doctor’s gender could influence a patient’s chances of survival. Under an administration with a blatantly dim view on civil-rights issues, looking at how gender works in our medical institutions will say a lot about how women will fare in the health-care system under Trump, whether they’re wearing a white coat or a hospital gown.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health recently analyzed how both the nature of gender and the surrounding social patterns have real-life, quantifiable health impacts: Patients treated by women doctors fared better than those treated by their male counterparts.
Tracking older patients over a month-long period, researchers found that people “treated by female physicians had significantly lower mortality [and hospital readmission] rates.” Overall, they concluded, “Elderly hospitalized patients treated by female internists have lower mortality and readmissions compared with those cared for by male internists.” Even within the same hospital, across different ailments “ranging from arrhythmia to sepsis,” for Medicare beneficiaries and other older patients, the chances of surviving crisis or avoiding rehospitalization are improved if your doctor happens to be a woman. The estimated net effect of the doctor-gender gap is that “approximately 32,000 fewer patients would die if male physicians could achieve the same outcomes as female physicians every year.”
But paradoxically, among physicians, women are both underrepresented, and earn less than men. According to the accompanying editorial, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, yearly “salaries for female academic physicians are $19,879, or 8.0 percent, lower than those of their male colleagues.” So, altogether, women are paid less, but provide better care. The patterns reveal how job segregation and discriminatory pay gaps pose barriers even for elite professional women. (A planned strike on International Women’s Day is meant to address these disparities—but is it only for privileged women?)
Is the answer then to hire more female doctors and pay them more? Not quite; the root cause is less about Dr. Jill’s versus Dr. Jack’s bedside manner than about the social systems shaping their careers. Systemic gender bias buttresses the whole health-care infrastructure.
Though the findings are limited by the demographics and binary gender categorization, the study illustrates how gender divides systematically influence patient experiences. Among older patients, critical health issues turn on subtle differences in practice that are linked to gender identity.