Patients operated on by female surgeons may have better outcomes: Why?

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published October 9, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that patients who are operated on by female surgeons may have better outcomes—and fewer adverse events up to a year after the operation.

  • The study adds to existing research on the positive impacts of female surgeons on patient outcomes.

  • More work is needed to determine why female surgeons are so successful, and to guide best practices for surgeons of all sexes.

When compared to their male counterparts, female surgeons have higher success rates for delivering their patients safely out of the operating room. A new study in JAMA Surgery found that patients who a female surgeon treated had lower rates of adverse outcomes—including death—after their operations compared to those treated by male surgeons.[]

The study researchers wrote that their findings “support observed differences in patients outcomes based on physician sex.” More research is needed to determine why this is the case—and how better standards can be achieved across sexes.

The study took place in Ontario, Canada, between 2007 and 2019 and assessed surgery outcomes of 1,165,711 patients—151,054 of whom were treated by a female surgeon and 1,014,657 of whom were treated by a male surgeon—at 90 days and 1 year following operation. Adverse postoperative events, defined as “composite of death, readmission, or complication,” were assessed. Results, which were multivariable-adjusted, found that, on average, patients treated by female surgeons had better outcomes than those treated by males.

Rachel Medbery, MD, a thoracic surgeon at Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeons (CTVS) in Austin, TX, says that the success of female surgeons may be due, in part, to stereotypes of women being more compassionate and detail-oriented—stereotypes that she says are sometimes true.

“That is not to say male doctors do not have those qualities—many of them absolutely do—but I do think patients enjoy interacting with a female,” Dr. Medbery says. “As a female surgeon in particular, there is just a little more unique bond with those patients,” women perhaps makes me a little bit more approachable. 

Having recently given birth, Dr. Medbery says she has been able to connect with some patients on deeper levels. “They view me not only as a surgeon, but also as a mom,” she adds.

Ramit Singh Sambyal, MD, a general physician associated with ClinicSpots in Delhi, says that the study suggests there may be some emotional or tactical differences in how female and male surgeons perform their work. Adding to the stereotype-to-reality argument, he suggests that female surgeons may “be precise, careful, or meticulous,” which could reduce risks of complications like injury and bleeding in the operating room; that they may demonstrate “better communication and collaboration skills,” like following up with patients after surgery; and that they may have “lower levels of risk-taking” or confidence, which can lower the risk of some errors. None of these hypotheses have been proven true.

Above all, Dr. Sambyal says that the findings highlight the need for more research on what makes a good study—and how to operate with best practices.

“The studies do not imply that female surgeons are superior to male surgeons or that patients should choose their surgeon based on [sex]” Dr. Sambyal says. “These differences are not inherent or fixed, but rather influenced by various factors, such as education, training, culture, and environment.”

This isn’t the first study to highlight the success of female surgeons on patient outcomes. Previous research has noticed these findings in the short term—30 days after surgery, for example. This study now displays longer-lasting results.

While female surgeons may provide better outcomes, this success may not be because of their sex.

Jennifer Silver, DDS, a dental surgeon and Owner of Macleod Trail Dental Clinic in Canada, says that  “the patient-surgeon relationship is multifaceted and extends beyond gender” or sex. 

“The effectiveness of healthcare is based on the surgeon's skills, knowledge, and ability to customize treatment for each patient,” she adds. 

As such, Dr. Silver encourages patients to choose a skilled surgeon whom they trust and who makes them feel valued and respected, regardless of sex or gender.

“While some patients might have personal preferences regarding the gender of their healthcare provider, it's essential to emphasize that a surgeon's gender doesn't dictate the quality of care or the success of a procedure,” she adds. “What truly matters is the doctor's commitment to providing the best possible treatment, ensuring patient comfort, and maintaining a high standard of ethical care.”

What this means for you

Researchers have found that patients who are operated on by female surgeons may have better outcomes—but they haven’t discovered why. Doctors ponder whether sex-based stereotypes have made their way into the operating room or if other confounding factors are at play.

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