Patients of female surgeons have slightly better outcomes, study suggests

Patients of female surgeons did slightly better following surgery than those whose surgeons were male, according to a Canadian study published in a British medical journal. Researchers studied more than 100,000 patients in Ontario hospitals.

Lower death rates following surgery recorded for those under the care of female doctors

A new study suggests there's a small difference in patient outcomes for male and female surgeons. (Prince County Hospital Foundation)

Patients of female surgeons did slightly better following surgery than those whose surgeons were male, according to a Canadian study published in a British medical journal.

The BMJ study compared outcomes for patients undergoing one of 25 surgical operations by female surgeons with patients undergoing the same procedures by male surgeons. The doctors were the same age, with similar levels of experience. A total of 104,630 patients were treated by 3,314 surgeons over the study period. All patients came from hospitals in Ontario.

Patients treated by female surgeons were four per cent less likely to die in the 30 days after an operation, says Dr. Raj Satkunasivam, a Canadian and a surgeon at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. Satkunasivam was the lead author of the study. 

"We have good evidence to support the notion that female surgeons are at least as good and possibly better than their male counterparts," says Satkunasivam, but he cautions that "we don't want to send the message that, as a patient, you should favour one sex over the other.

"We want to use this data to bring about equality," he says. "Our findings have important implications for supporting sex equality and diversity in a traditionally male-dominated profession."

Further study warranted

Toronto family physician Danielle Martin says she finds the statistical data of this study "unconvincing," but she believes the findings warrant further exploration.

"I do not think that based on this study, Canadian patients should change their care-seeking behaviour based on the sex or gender of their surgeon. But I think it is great to see a deepening of our awareness of sex and gender in health care services research," Martin says.

The study also looked at complications and readmissions, but no significant differences were found for patients of female and male surgeons.

Observational study

The study is observational, meaning the researchers can't establish causes for the differing outcomes. But co-author Dr. Chris Wallis, a urology resident at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, has a theory.

"Female physicians tend to communicate better than men. They also tend to follow guidelines more closely than men do in medicine in general. It's possible that those differences in the way that men and women interact with patients, interact with their colleagues, may also contribute to the differences that we're seeing in this study," he says.

The field of medicine is changing. The majority of students in Canadian medical schools are female, but in the highly specialized field of surgery, women remain the minority. (Shutterstock )

Wallis also suggests that women face more barriers to entering the field of surgery, so it's logical that only particularly strong women have been able to overcome the challenges.

"It's not to say there aren't good male surgeons, but just to say that the pressures that are put on female surgeons may force them to be even better, even harder working, to get to the same point."

According to statistics for 2017 by the Canadian Medical Association, there were 7,210 male surgeons in Canada and 2,856 female surgeons.

About the Author

Kas Roussy

Senior Reporter

Kas Roussy is a senior reporter with the Health unit at CBC News. In her more than 30 years with CBC, Kas’s reporting has taken her around the globe to cover news in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chile, Haiti and China, where she was the bureau producer.