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Study Finds Patients Fare Better When the Surgeon is Female

Nature or nurture? Women typically have to work harder to become surgeons, the authors point out.

Published: October 12, 2017

FAIR TO COMPARE The study matched female and male surgeons based on numerous criteria.

Do women make better surgeons? Maybe. Or maybe "better" women become surgeons — better, that is, in that they have the skill, drive and determination to overcome sex-based barriers to entry in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field.

Maybe both. What's known for sure is that a large recent retrospective study found that patients treated by female surgeons were slightly less likely to be readmitted, to suffer complications or to die, within 30 days.

The study, published in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), looked at more than a million surgeries performed in Ontario, Canada between 2007 and 2015, and drilled down based on surgeon age, years in practice, operative volumes, surgical specialty, and patient demographics.

Based on matching sets of more than 52,000 patients for each surgeon sex, the cohort of patients treated by women had fewer 30-day mortalities (480 vs. 543), fewer 30-day readmissions (2,433 vs. 2,518) and fewer 30-day complications (3,543 vs. 3,674). The differences related primarily to elective operations. No significant differences were found in outcomes after emergency surgeries.

Previous studies, say the authors, have shown that sex-based discrimination, lifestyle factors and workload are deterrents for women considering careers in surgery. As a result, they suggest, the women who become surgeons may be "proportionately more skilled, motivated, and harder working" than their male counterparts.

The findings, they add, "have important implications for supporting sex equality and diversity in a traditionally male dominated profession."

Jim Burger


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