If you are rushed to a hospital emergency room after suffering a heart attack, the gender of the physician who treats you is probably the least of your concerns.
But new research reports that, if you're a woman, it can make a life-or-death difference.
In a large study of patients admitted under those crisis conditions, "we find higher mortality among female patients who are treated by male physicians," writes a research team led by Brad Greenwood of the University of Minnesota.
"A large body of medical research suggests that women are less likely than men to survive traumatic health episodes," he and his colleagues write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "These results suggest a reason. Most physicians are male, and male physicians appear to have trouble treating female patients."
The researchers analyzed information from a census of heart attack patients admitted to Florida hospitals between 1991 and 2010. It included detailed data on both the patients and the emergency room doctors who treated them, allowing them to compare outcomes for patients treated by members of their own gender vs. the opposite gender.
"Female patients treated by male physicians were the least likely to survive," they report. "Survival rates were two to three times higher for female patients treated by female physicians compared with female patients treated by male physicians."
While those troubling statistics don't reveal the reasons behind this disparity, the researchers found male physicians do better under specific circumstances. Specifically, male doctors are more effective at treating female heart-attack patients when they have treated more women in the past, and/or work alongside more women colleagues.
Whatever the gender of their doctor, "Female patients experienced better outcomes in emergency departments that have a higher percentage of female physicians," the researchers report.
Why would this be? Women physicians "may be more equipped to properly diagnose and treat female (heart) patients," the researchers write, and their male colleagues can benefit from a "spillover" effect of their knowledge.
"Female colleagues," they add, "might also influence E.R. protocols in a way which helps the diagnosis and treatment of female patients."
Not surprisingly, the researchers conclude by recommending hospitals hire more female physicians for their emergency departments. In addition, they argue physician training should be updated to make sure male doctors understand that heart attacks are not limited to men.
This is the second recent research paper to suggest the superiority of female physicians. A 2017 study found "elderly hospitalized patients treated by female internists have lower mortality and readmissions compared with those cared for by male internists."
It makes you wonder why they make less money than their male colleagues.