The lead author, Dr. Christopher J.D. Wallis, an assistant professor of urology at the University of Toronto, said that there was no reason to believe that there is any difference in technical skills between male and female surgeons. Rather, he suggested, the problem may lie in part in differing styles of communication and the ways that doctors talk to male and female patients.
The second author on the study, Dr. Angela Jerath, an associate professor of anesthesiology at the University of Toronto, said that when she is working as an anesthesiologist with a woman surgeon, the atmosphere in the operating room tends to be different, more collegial, which may foster better communication and improve teamwork.
“Female surgeons ask me more questions,” she said. “Maybe women are more collaborative. Maybe they are more detail oriented. Maybe they are more meticulous. We can’t answer these questions with our data.”
Dr. Wallis said that after the surgery, too, doctors may treat men and women patients differently.
“We know that women’s pain is not given as much credence as men’s pain,” he said. “In postoperative care, this can be complex. To some degree, pain is an expected outcome of surgery, but it can also suggest an early sign of a complication. Doctors must be able to read the symptoms and at the same time have a demeanor that welcomes patients to present information in a way that we can head off problems before they happen.”
It is not only in surgery that the sex of the doctor and patient can make a difference. There are many studies, Dr. Wallis said, demonstrating that in various specialties higher death rates occur when male doctors treat female patients. As one example, he mentioned a 2018 study that found higher mortality among female heart attack patients treated by male physicians.
Dr. Jerath had some advice for her colleagues. “I’d like surgeons to be able to take a step back,” she said. “Be thoughtful — something is happening here. Let’s look at it and be open to solutions.”