I still have a vivid memory of my first doctor, Dr. Minden. No one likes to see a doctor and I can still remember the fear of getting the immunization shots that were part of growing up. But doctor Minden was always so kind and caring, it made whatever I had to endure worth going. I knew that whatever he did was always done to help me and that any momentary pain would be short-lived. I was heart-broken when I grew older and learned that he was a “kid’s doctor” and I had graduated to adult doctors.
Part of the reason I went to medical school was to become the kind of doctor I remember Dr. Minden being. Part of the reason I left medical school was the kind of education I was getting was harsh and abusive rather than kind and caring. When I was in medical school, there were only a few females in my class. Now women outnumber men in medical schools (and colleges) and profession is shifting.
It seems that the care and compassion I remember from my childhood doctor are seen more commonly in female than in male health care providers. So, I’ve always sought out female health-care practitioners over the years. Compared to the male doctors I had, they were more engaged and involved. They were much closer in spirit my childhood doctor Minden. I suspect that all doctors would be better doctors if they spend significant time learning about healing from children.
Now a new study by doctors from Harvard have found that we could save 32,000 lives a year if we saw female doctors as opposed to male doctors. After examining the medical records of Medicare patients from across the country, the Harvard researchers calculated that 10.82% of those treated by physicians who were women died within 30 days of being admitted to the hospital. Among patients treated by male physicians, the 30-day mortality rate was 11.49%, according to a study published recently in in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The differences between male and female providers persisted even after the researchers accounted for factors like the age, gender and income of patients, how sick those patients were when they first checked into the hospital, the resources of the hospitals and the experience of the doctors. There seems to be something about the qualities of being female that pays off in better health care.
Brain researcher Simon Baron-Cohen believes that root of the differences between male and female may be found in the structure and function of our brains. In his book, The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male & Female Brain, he says, “The subject of essential sex differences in the mind is clearly very delicate. I could tiptoe around it, but my guess is that you would like the theory of the book stated plainly. So here it is:”
“The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”
This statement, as he suggests, stirs up a lot of emotion in people. I know it did with me when I first read it. Once I calmed down and actually read the book, the statement made more sense and I came to agree with it. First, it says our brains are “predominantly” hard-wired. It doesn’t say they are totally hard-wired a certain way or that our brains can be changed as a result of our experiences.
Not all women are more empathic than all men and not all men are better at understanding and building systems than all women. But if we take a large sample of men and a large sample of women, we will find that on average the group of women are more empathic and the group of men are more oriented towards understanding and building systems.
It helped me to think about height. We would likely agree with the statement that “males are taller than females.” We understand that some women are taller than some men (At 5 feet 5 inches tall, this is a reality I know all too well). But on average, men are taller than women and it seems the female physicians in the study, as a group, were more helpful to patients than the male physicians as a group.
The JAMA study even honed in on specific illnesses. For instance, patients admitted for an irregular heart rhythm had a 5.08% chance of dying within 30 days if their doctor was a woman and a 6.02% chance if their doctor was a man. Pneumonia patients treated by women also had an advantage over those treated by men (10.11% versus 11.03%). The study also found that being seen by a female made it less likely you would become re-hospitalized after leaving the hospital.
Overall, in the JAMA study, the patients were about 4% less likely to die within 30 days of being admitted if their doctor was a woman instead of a man. Considering that more than 10 million Medicare patients wind up in hospitals each year, the lives of about 32,000 senior citizens could be saved if patients treated by men were treated by women instead.
As I get older I want to do everything I can to protect my health. That’s why I have chosen females for my health-care providers when I can. However, I don’t exclude men. I’ve found there are a number of male physicians that are “atypical” in a positive way. They are empathic, involved, skilled, and caring. We can all learn to be more empathic and involved and choose health-care providers that reflect these values.
I look forward to your comments and hearing about your own experiences. Please share your comment below and then join me on Twitter.
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