Women are 32% more likely to die after an operation if their surgeon is male, study finds

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Women are more likely to die after an operation if their surgeon is male, a new study found.

Though the overall likelihood of dying after a surgery is still very low, women with a male surgeon were 16% more likely to have complications, 20% more likely to need to stay in the hospital for longer and 32% more likely to die than if their surgeon was female, researchers in Canada determined.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Surgery, was based on data from more than 1.3 million patients who underwent 21 different kinds of common elective surgeries — such as hip and knee replacements, weight loss surgeries and more complicated procedures like heart bypasses and brain surgery — in Ontario between 2007 and 2019.

The issues did not extend to male patients — they were just 2% more likely to have complications with a female surgeon, and compared to women, they were 13% less likely to die with a male surgeon.

The data, though, "should not prompt immediate panic," Christopher Wallis, a urological oncologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, and lead author of the study, told The Lily, as the chance of dying from surgery is still very low. For women, the possibility of dying after brain or vascular surgery with a female doctor is around 0.9%, and it goes up to just 1.2% with a male surgeon.

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But Wallis said that their research "should definitely prompt us to be thoughtful and consider how we can do more research and evolve our practices in order to limit the gap" between male and female surgeons.

He, along with co-author Angela Jerath, a clinical epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, believe that the difference between genders aren't "technical," but likely more to do with how women intuitively practice medicine. Jerath suspects that female surgeons may work with their patients differently, talk with them more after surgery and consult with other specialists.

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They also speculated that the additional work required for women to break into the field may make a difference in their practice.

"The culture of medicine and surgery makes it harder for women to gain entry than men," Wallis said. "If women have a higher barriers to entry, then only those who are truly exceptional will get in."

Wallis and Jerath said that their research emphasizes the need for more women in the field.

"Diversifying the health-care workforce and the surgical workforce is undoubtedly going to lead to better outcomes," Wallis said. "Not just because, potentially, this diverse workforce better identifies with our patients in the community, but also because there's a diversity of ideas."

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