Women doctors might be nicer than their male counterparts, but gender differences in communication skills don't generally change outcomes-and shouldn't affect patients' expectations, one top doctor said.
A study in last week's Journal of the American Medical Association said female primary-care doctors spend more time with patients than their male colleagues, providing far more emotional support. Women may be nicer, but they shouldn't be any better, said J. Edward Hill, chairman of the American Medical Association's board of trustees and a family practitioner in Tupelo, Miss."My first reaction was that we all know that men and women are a little different," Hill said. "But the biggest concern would be if the patients' expectations aren't met (while talking with their doctors). If that's the case, we encourage patients to say something about it and not be intimidated by the white coat."But those gender-based communication skills can make a big difference in the health of a patient, according to the author of the study. "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 communication 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.
Female doctors tend to engage in communication that "relates to the larger life context of patients' conditions," and are more apt to have "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 that male OB/GYNs, among all the groups, demonstrated conversational styles most similar to women, focusing more on patient-oriented issues in their conversations.
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."