Women who have had a heart attack have a significantly higher survival rate when a female doctor treats them in the emergency room, a new study of nearly 582,000 cases shows.
In fact, in the sample, 1,500 fewer women would have died—women male doctors treated—if their survival rate was the same as women female physicians treated.
Further, women had a better survival rate with male doctors who have a lot of female colleagues in the ER—though they would still be better off with a female physician. The findings parallel similar studies of gender differences in medical outcomes, but the difference here is the stakes, says Seth Carnahan, associate professor of strategy at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.
“You have highly trained experts with life or death on the line, and yet the gender match between the physician and the patient seems to matter a great deal,” he says.
“Interpersonal interactions, whether they are between a doctor and patient or a manager and a subordinate, create the core of an organization.”
Though the research focuses on medical outcomes in a health care setting, Carnahan says the findings are relevant to business because the big picture is about gender differences in the workplace. It’s a subject that’s interested him for a long time, particularly after hearing how his sister’s experiences in male-dominated workplaces differed from his own.
“Interpersonal interactions, whether they are between a doctor and patient or a manager and a subordinate, create the core of an organization,” he says. “I’m very interested in how these interactions determine a firm’s performance and influence the lives of its managers, employees, and customers.”
For the study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers reviewed a trove of anonymous medical data from Florida hospitals from 1991 to 2010.
These data allowed the team to measure factors such as age, race, and medical history of patients, hospital quality, and more. Even accounting for these factors, the team found female patients were less likely to survive heart attacks than male patients and that gender differences in survival rates were the highest under male physicians.
“…the benefit of having a female doctor is particularly stark for a female patient.”
For patients female physicians treated, the gender disparity in survival rates was about 0.2 percent. In other words, 11.8 percent of men died, versus about 12 percent of women.
However, for patients male physicians treated, the gender gap in survival more than tripled to 0.7 percent. In that case, 12.6 percent of men died compared to 13.3 percent of women.
“Our work corroborates prior research showing that female doctors tend to produce better patient outcomes than male doctors,” Carnahan says. “The novel part of what we are doing is showing that the benefit of having a female doctor is particularly stark for a female patient.”
In reviewing conditions that most favored female patients, researchers found that female survival rates rose as the percentage of female doctors in the ER rose—particularly if the treating physician was male. The “male bias” effect also declined the more the male doctors had treated female patients.
Those mitigating factors “suggest that having training programs that are more gender neutral, or showing how men and women might present symptoms differently, could improve outcomes for female patients,” Carnahan says.
The research is similar to another study that documented how female lawyers were less likely to advance in their firms with promotions and plum assignments when they worked for politically conservative male law partners.
The current paper, however, moves outside the employer-employee arena, where gender bias is well documented in certain circumstances.
“Employee-customer relationships don’t have as much research in this area, and you can think of a physician and a patient being a customer relationship,” Carnahan says. “I think organizations that get this right can outperform other firms and produce better outcomes for all of their stakeholders.”
Additional coauthors of the paper are from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Harvard University.