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Navigating the Health Care System

A Female or Male Provider?

Women often say that we prefer to be cared for by a woman rather than a man. We hope, and often believe, that female physicians and other health care providers will be different from their male colleagues, in that they will listen better and be more understanding, sensitive, and caring.10  Unfortunately, however, female providers emerge from the same stressful and dehumanizing medical training process that affects all doctors. Sometimes their anticipation of prestige, money, and position interferes with providing good care. Once in practice, female physicians face the same financial and time constraints as male physicians and thus may disappoint us in similar ways. 
At the medical plan I belong to, I chose one of the two women doctors because I believed a woman would be less likely to push drugs and surgery, and would look with me first for the less invasive nonmedical alternatives. In the first visit, she suggested not only thyroid medication but also a routine X ray; she talked crisply, rapidly, coolly, with many complicated medical terms. I felt as if I were sitting across from a medical school curriculum.

Although we cannot assume that a female physician will be better than a male physician, studies have shown some relevant differences. Female physicians generally see fewer patients than male physicians do in a given time period and thus spend more time with each individual.11 Female physicians may be more successful communicators than male physicians because they listen better, tell you more, ask you more questions, elicit more patient disclosure, facilitate more patient participation, establish a  dialogue, and are more empathetic.12 Female physicians are more likely to advise and offer preventive services such as Pap smears, clinical breast examinations, and mammograms.13 Research on the effect of gender among other types of providers is limited, perhaps because of the small number of men in fields such as nursing and midwifery.

Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

10. Michelle Harrison, A Woman in Residence (New York: Fawcett Book Group, 1993).
11. Lucy Candib, The Gender of the Doctor: What Is the Difference in Practice?, Cabot Series Primary Care Lecture, Harvard Medical School, December 12, 1996.
12. D. L. Roter and J. A. Hall, Examining Gender Specific Issues in Patient-Physician Communication, Women's Health and Primary Care: A Workshop to Build a Research and Policy Agenda (Washington, DC: George Washington University Center for Health Policy Research, 1994).
13. N. Lurie, J. Slater, P. McGovern, et al., Preventive Services for Women: Does the Sex of the Physician Matter?, New England Journal of Medicine 329 (1993): 478-82.


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