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Patients have lower 30-day mortality rates under female surgeons, study finds

Patients treated by female surgeons had a small but statistically significant decrease in 30-day mortality compared with those treated by male surgeons.

That’s the finding of a new study in the BMJ, which suggests that women may be better at communicating and more willing to follow guidelines.

To find out if there was a difference in death rates for male and female surgeons, the team from the University of Toronto looked back over 104,630 patients who were treated by 3,314 patients between 2007 and 2015.

Patients were matched for age, sex, presence of other conditions and income, while surgeons were matched for age, experience, volume of operations and hospital.

The risk of dying within 30 days following an operation was 12% less if a woman operated. There was no significant difference in readmissions to hospital or complications.

The researchers qualified their findings by explaining that surgeons are not independent of teams, so the differences could not only reflect differences in surgeon sex but also how they use the resources available to them.

However, because the study compared surgeons at the same hospital mortality differences are less likely to be related to system or team based factors.

The buffering effect of surgical teams should result in a bias towards the null and so the effect might be an underestimate, it concludes.

Although in the UK around 58% of medical students are now women, just 11% of surgeons are female.

Author Dr Raj Satkunasivam said: “Women and men practise medicine differently, although little research exists on the differences in learning styles, acquisition of skills, or outcomes for female and male surgeons.

“We don’t know the mechanism that underlies better outcomes for patients treated by female surgeons, although it might be related to delivery of care that is more congruent with guidelines, more patient centred, and involves superior communication.”

The research concludes that the findings do have important implications for supporting sex equality and diversity in a traditionally male dominated profession.

The Royal College of Surgeons said although the study confirmed the ‘safety, skill and expertise’ of female surgeons, patients should not seek to choose a surgeon the basis of sex.

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