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Should Parents Let Only Female Doctors Treat Their Children?

Photograph by Twenty20

If you’re wondering who to choose as your child’s pediatrician, you may want to go beyond just getting a recommendation from a friend and consider hiring a recommended female physician. According to Harvard researchers, patients receiving treatment from a female doctor were four percent less likely to die and five percent less likely to be re-admitted to the hospital than patients who were treated by male physicians.

Those percentages may not seem noteworthy, but they translate into 32,000 patients who stay alive and out of the hospital per year. For comparison, that’s about the entire population of Poughkeepsie, New York.

While parents already have enough worries when it comes to choosing the right doctor, they shouldn’t have to fear that the gender of their child’s pediatrician could result in inferior care.

The study, which reviewed the records of over 1.5 million hospital visits by Medicare patients who were 65 and older (definitely not children) revealed a significant difference in their outcomes just 30 days after receiving treatment. Patients who were seen by female doctors, no matter the seriousness of their medical condition, fared better than the patients who were treated by male doctors.

While it may seem like a stretch to apply the research to pediatric care, children and the elderly have more in common than you might think when it comes to how they interact with doctors—and how doctors interact with them.

Researchers exhausted other possibilities, including diagnoses, ages of the physicians, training and even the gender of the patients seen, trying to determine if there was some other explanation for why the female doctors’ patients had better outcomes. Aside from noting that the female doctors saw a slightly larger percentage of female patients than male doctors did, no clinical variable, aside from the gender of the physicians, could explain the results.

It’s interesting to note that female doctors only make up approximately one third of all practicing doctors in the United States. Even with that number, it turns out 60 percent of all pediatricians are—you guessed it—women, and approximately 51 percent of all ob-gyns are also female.

While it may seem like a stretch to apply the research to pediatric care, children and the elderly have more in common than you might think when it comes to how they interact with doctors—and how doctors interact with them.

That means it’s not improbable that parents, dedicated to finding the most qualified doctor for their child, will wind up with a female pediatrician anyhow. But does that mean parents shouldn’t consider a male doctor for pediatric care?

While not enough current research exists to investigate the potential differences in care among male and female pediatricians, there are qualities that parents can look for, in any gender of physician, to ensure that their child receives the best possible care.

Harvard researchers noted that past studies have pointed out common differences between female and male providers. Along with taking more time with their patients, female doctors are more able to follow pre-established guidelines of care, screen for psychosocial needs, provide preventative treatments, and tend to be more compassionate and supportive to their patients. This, some surmise, leads to better overall outcomes for their patients.

Parents shouldn’t cross male providers off their list when searching for pediatricians for their children, but they should take note of how the doctor interacts with them and their child. Does he or she seem encouraging and considerate to both the child and the parents? Does the doctor rush through their appointment or seem to be in too big of a hurry to really listen to the parents’ concerns? Does he or she talk about other health needs and offer suggestions for overall health, not just treatment of a specific problem? Those answers could reveal whether or not a child’s doctor has the right qualities to provide the kind of care families deserve.

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