Female primary care doctors spend slightly more time with their patients than their male colleagues, providing emotional support and talking in far greater detail about health-related lifestyle and social issues.
And, generally speaking, women doctors are just plain nicer than men, according to a study in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.
But that's not all. "It's more than just being nice," said lead researcher Debra Roter, a health policy specialist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who reviewed 26 studies of communication patterns among physicians and residents and their patients. "The elements of communications we documented (in women) create a more effective therapeutic milieu that allows patients to be helped more effectively by doctors."
Roter's study did not attempt to determine if these differences in communication had an overall impact on the health of the patients. But it certainly can't hurt, she said.
"These studies do not directly link medical outcomes to communications," Roter said. "I would not conclude that female doctors are better than male doctors. But patient-centered communications are valued by patients. And, in general, those (communication skills) have been associated with positive patient outcomes."
On average, Roter's study found, women doctors spent 23 minutes with patients compared with 21 minutes for male physicians. Women also spent more time than their male counterparts discussing lifestyle issues and providing positive support for their patients.
Female doctors tend to engage in communication that "relates to the larger life context of patients' conditions," and are more apt to use "emotional" or "positive" conversations with patients, according to the report. The results, it said, are "entirely consistent with what one might expect from the nonmedical literature regarding gender differences in communication."
Roter's study included family practitioners, internists, obstetricians/gynecologists, pediatricians and residents. She found male OB/GYNs, among all the groups, demonstrated conversational styles most similar to women, focusing more on patient-oriented issues in their conversations.
While the study confirms a widely held perception about the contrasting conversational styles and communication skills of women and men, Roter said she was surprised by one finding: The tough, competitive nature of medical school and residency programs did not transform women into "macho doctors."
Instead, she said, the traditional, gender-linked communication attributes of women -- the ease of talking about emotional issues and relationships, for instance -- were not erased by the tremendous difficulty in the "socialization process of becoming a doctor."
Click here for an abstract of the study. The full-text article also is available online to JAMA subscribers or for purchase.