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A New Kind of Gender Bias for Female Surgeons

Study says the backlash women receive following surgical errors far exceeds what male surgeons experience.

Published: November 29, 2017

GENDER INEQUALITY Referrals to female surgeon dropped by 54% after bad outcomes, according to new research.

Female surgeons face more backlash after a bad patient outcome than male surgeons, according to a Harvard University report.

Previous research established that the more confident primary care physicians are in a surgeon's ability, the more patients they'll refer to that doc for surgery, says Heather Sarsons, an economics PhD candidate and doctoral fellow in the Inequality and Social Policy program at Harvard University. With that in mind, Ms. Sarsons used Medicare data to examine referral rates to male and female surgeons before and after one of their patients died during surgery.

She found not-so-subtle sexism. Referrals from primary care physicians to female surgeons dropped by 54% after bad outcomes, while the referral rates to male surgeons hardly changed. In addition, referral rates to male surgeons increased by 100% after good surgical outcomes, while female surgeons enjoyed only a 70% increase. A bad experience with a single female surgeon also causes primary care physicians to lower referral rates to other female surgeons in the same specialty, according to the report, which notes male surgeons are not subjected to the same type of widespread blame.

It follows that the seemingly unfair punishment female surgeons experience for making surgical mistakes impacts their long-term earning potential. Female surgeons lose 60% of their Medicare billings from referring primary care physicians after bad outcomes, compared with a 30% drop for male surgeons, says Ms. Sarsons. She also says female surgeons receive fewer referrals involving difficult procedures and risky patients after a patient death.

Ms. Sarsons hopes her report spotlights the differences between how male and female surgeons are treated following both positive and negative outcomes. "My research broadly focuses on understanding gender and race inequality in labor markets, and interpreting men and women's work performances differently could contribute to gender gaps in market outcomes," she says. "I wasn't as surprised by the fact that female surgeons receive fewer referrals after a death than male surgeons, but I was very surprised by the reaction to good events."

Daniel Cook

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