Women MDs Spend More Time With Patients: Does It Matter?

Shelly M. Reese


June 23, 2011

In This Article

More Patient-Centered Interviewing

In analyzing the various studies, however, Roter and Hall found female physicians were much more likely to engage in "patient-centered" interviewing by actively enlisting patient input, counseling, and exploring larger life-context issues that affect patients' conditions.

"Female physicians are more likely to talk about lifestyle issues and psychosocial issues," says Roter. "They're more likely to engage in conversations of feelings and emotions and those conversations take time."

A study published in 2009 in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry echoed those findings. Researchers at a depression clinic found female general practitioners wrote longer referral letters detailing their patients' symptoms. In a subsequent survey of 500 patients suffering from depression, patients of female general practitioners said their doctors were more caring, took more time, and were better listeners than patients of male physicians.

Research shows patients respond to female physicians' more patient-centered approach by disclosing more about both their medical symptoms and their lifestyles, Roter says. She notes that female doctors in primary care do more counseling in preventive or self care, such as mammography, pap smears, and screening for seatbelts and alcohol consumption and are more successful at getting patients to have preventive care screenings.

One of the areas where male and female doctors do not differ is "social chit chat," Roter says. "The conversations female doctors are having during these visits are medically relevant."

Patients, Practice Settings Are Important

While the extended-play conversations female docs have with their patients may be medically important, male doctors take issue with the idea that women are innately better communicators or that their patients may be more willing to disclose important details about their health.

"Certainly no one can argue that there are some generalizations that can be made about communication styles," says Greg Hood, MD, a general internist in Lexington, Kentucky, and Governor of the Kentucky chapter of the American College of Physicians. "But you can't take from that that women are universally more empathetic or more caring.

"Physician styles are something that patients self select for; they'll go from one group to another to find the physician with whom they connect the most. In my experience predicting what a patient's preference will be in terms of physician approach or physician style is really a fool's errand because we are not movie characters. We're real people and we're very complex. When 2 people -- a physician and a patient – are relating to each other about complex health issues, you can't make a straightforward assertion about how they'll relate based on gender. I think it is very circumspect."

Indeed, research shows a patient's gender has a lot to with how they interact with their doctors and the length of the interaction. Female patients -- the primary consumers of healthcare -- who have female doctors have the longest interactions followed by male patients with female doctors, female patients with male doctors, and, lastly, male patients with male doctors.

As for the few extra minutes female physicians generally spend with their patients, Dr. Hood muses whether the differential might be attributable to a sense of competition among male physicians to see more patients or to a feeling of responsibility that the primary breadwinner in the household -- be it a man or a woman -- might have to maximize earnings.