ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If you are older and hospitalized for an illness, does it matter whether you're treated by a male doctor or a female doctor? Well, a new study out in JAMA Internal Medicine - JAMA stands for the Journal of the American Medical Association - suggests that it could matter.
The study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health looked at Medicare patients, average age about 80. And it found that patients treated by female doctors were less likely to die or to be readmitted within 30 days. In percentages, the differences look tiny, but the numbers matter. The researchers concluded that there would be 32,000 fewer deaths each year if male doctors performed as well as female doctors.
The study's authors say they were unable to identify exactly why this was the case. But for some hypotheses, we're joined now by a pair of doctors who have seen this study. John Schumann and Sarah-Anne Schumann join us both from Tulsa, Okla. Welcome to the program.
JOHN SCHUMANN: Nice to be here. Thank you.
SARAH-ANNE SCHUMANN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: And we should say, John, you're an internist. And Sarah-Anne, you're a family physician.
J. SCHUMANN: That's right.
SIEGEL: And you're also husband and wife.
J. SCHUMANN: We are - 18 years going strong.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Well, Sarah-Anne, let me ask you. When you first heard about these findings that female doctors showed better outcomes than male doctors, was your initial response, this is nuts, or, this makes sense to me?
S. SCHUMANN: I thought it made perfect sense. I think this has really confirmed what a lot of us have suspected over many years, which is that in general, women tend to be better communicators. They generally are - have better emotional intelligence and often are able to see patients as people and not as just diseases. And again, this is a huge generalization.
SIEGEL: Well, John Schumann, did you think that this study suggests that there should be more medical education on at least how to be received as being more nurturing?
J. SCHUMANN: I do. I think that nowadays in the medical school community, we are looking at the applicants more holistically to try to find people who are of good character as well as high academic standing. How our patients gather their information, how they want their information and whether they look at us as an authority figure or as a partner in their care makes all the difference.
So if we have only one style, I think we run the risk of alienating certain patients that we have. Whereas if we're more emotionally intelligent and are able to read cues - you know, nonverbal language but, you know, obviously words as well - we are probably more able to deliver better care. And so I think we're only really in the infancy of being able to teach this much better in medical school. And it's a fierce struggle for time in the curriculum.
SIEGEL: Sarah-Anne, when we hear talk of communicating and of perhaps better communications accounting for some of this disparity, is there a specific kind of communication that you have in mind, a specific way of dealing with the patient in a hospital?
S. SCHUMANN: Well, one of the things I do think it is important for everyone to keep in mind - that these were hospitalized patients. So one element of communication I would, you know, again, hypothesize would be really important is for the doctors to be communicating with the nurses who are doing the discharge planning and the social workers and if there are people involved in the care after patients return home, you know, communicating with the family members of the patients to figure out how they will continue to get the care they need after they leave the hospital.
So it's not just that communication between the doctor and the patient while they're in the hospital but with the rest of the medical team and with the family members of the patients.
SIEGEL: Does it make sense to you that female doctors are more likely to be at the center of such a team than male doctors?
S. SCHUMANN: I think often - and again, these are huge generalizations. And I have to point out that my husband, John Schumann, is a great communicator, a great team member. You know, there are many, many male doctors who really have tremendous empathy and emotional intelligence.
But in general, I think there are more women that have these skills and who are comfortable sharing the responsibility for the care of the patient with the teams. And that goes back to the nurturing and the maternal instincts of women.
J. SCHUMANN: Thanks, Honey.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Do you have anything else to say in response to that, John?
J. SCHUMANN: Well, you know, I would say that much of what I've learned about being not only a good doctor but a good person really comes from my wife because she just happens to be very gifted in terms of having emotional insight. And it's something she has perhaps unknowingly role modeled to me.
And it all I think in a way boils down to the Golden Rule, right? We want to treat others as the way we want to be treated. And I think it's easy for us doctors to often forget that.
SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you for talking with us today, and thanks for your contributions to the NPR health blog Shots.
J. SCHUMANN: Great to be with you, Robert.
S. SCHUMANN: Thank you so much for having us.
SIEGEL: John Schumann is an internist and president of the University of Oklahoma's Tulsa campus. Sarah-Anne Schumann is medical director of Community Health Connection, a community health center in Tulsa.
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