October 11, 2017 3:25 pm

Patients treated by female surgeons may have better outcomes: study

Patients who were treated by a female surgeon had a 12 per cent less likely chance of dying within 30 days after an operation, according to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal.

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Female surgeons may have to push through more barriers to work their field, but new research suggests they may be outperforming their male counterparts.

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According to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, patients who were treated by a female surgeon had a 12 per cent less likely chance of dying within 30 days after an operation, the Telegraph reports.

Dr. Raj Satkunasivam, lead author and urologic surgeon and assistant professor at the Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, says the study was meant to expand on existing literature of how men and women practice medicine differently.

“There is data that women practice and follow guidelines differently,” he tells Newsler. “But surgery is very technical and hasn’t really been investigated. Surgery is also a very male-dominated specialty, and we really want to utilize this study to [approach] some of the inequalities in the field.”

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Looking at the data

To conduct the research, Satkunasivam and his team at the University of Toronto looked at 1,159,687 eligible patients between the years of 2007 and 2015. Using a benchmark of 3,314 surgeons, 774 were female and 2,540 were male. In their findings, authors looked at 144,119 patients treated by female surgeons.

Patients were matched by age, sex, and general comorbidity, and surgeons were matched based on age, experience and types of operations.

Dr. Chris Wallis, urologic surgery resident and health services researcher at the University of Toronto, who also worked on the study, says the team was not surprised with the results.

“Female diabetes doctors are more likely to adhere to guidelines or communicate well with their patients… it really shouldn’t be surprising that female surgeons may outperform their male counterparts.”

Satkunasivam adds because of the inequality to begin with, these women as students may not have female mentors and end up working even harder to get into the field. “Bottom line [is] we have evidence to support the idea that they are just as good as their male counterparts, but this should not lead patients to pick a sex.”

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Wallis stresses while sex shouldn’t determine the type of surgeon you choose, it can be useful for the medical community to figure out why female surgeons did better in the first place.

“If we can look further into the differences, we can teach students and surgeons to lead to better results. If we can identify the cause, we can act on that and improve care for all patients, regardless of the sex of the surgeon.”

Other studies with similar results

Research from Harvard University in 2016 found death and re-admission rates were lower when an elderly patient’s doctor was a woman, the Atlantic reports. Researchers estimated if more operations were performed by women, there would be 32,000 fewer deaths each year in the U.S.

Another study from the University of Oxford from earlier this year found female doctors were more emphatic than male doctors.

Sex shouldn’t matter

Satkunasivam adds the research itself is still limited, and Wallis notes overall, including all surgical specialties, women had slightly better outcomes than men. But when the team looked at a subgroup analysis, the differences were not as significant —except for plastic surgery.

David Urbach, president of the Canadian Association of General Surgeons, says at the end of the day, sex should not be a determining factor of how you choose a surgeon.

“All Canadian surgeons in practice are well trained and able to care properly for patients,” he tells Newsler. “We would not discriminate on sex or gender.”

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He adds this particular study isn’t compelling enough to persuade patients to think otherwise, and in some procedures, there were no differences between male and female surgeons.

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