Surgeons performing surgery in the operating room

(Photo by Alex Negroe from Pexels)

TORONTO, Ontario — Having a medical team made up mostly of female doctors when having surgery might yield the best outcome for patients, according to new research.

The study, led by Dr. Julie Hallet at the University of Toronto and published in BJS, analyzed the medical records of over 700,000 patients who underwent major surgeries in Ontario, Canada between 2009 and 2019. The researchers focused on a key measure of surgical success: the rate of serious complications within 90 days after the operation. These complications, like infections, blood clots, or kidney failure, can lead to longer hospital stays, higher healthcare costs, and, most importantly, more suffering for patients.

So what did they find? Hospitals with a higher proportion of female anesthesiologists and surgeons – specifically, more than 35 percent women – had slightly better outcomes. Patients treated at these more gender-diverse hospitals had a three-percent lower chance of experiencing a major complication in the 90 days after surgery.

Now, three percent might not sound like a lot, but when you consider the sheer volume of surgeries performed each year, it adds up to a significant number of patients who could be spared from complications. For each individual patient, avoiding a serious complication can mean a world of difference in their recovery and quality of life.

Interestingly, the benefit of diverse surgical teams was even more pronounced when the lead surgeon or anesthesiologist on the case was a woman. Having more than 35 percent female representation across the department amplified the already positive effect of having a female surgeon or anesthesiologist in charge.

So what’s behind this “diversity bonus“? The researchers propose a few potential explanations. Different life experiences between men and women may lead to varied approaches to problem-solving and decision-making. A more balanced team might be better equipped to catch potential issues from multiple angles. There’s also evidence that female physicians tend to have a more patient-centered, empathetic communication style, which could help put patients at ease and encourage them to speak up about any concerns.

Woman having conversation with her doctor
Hospitals with a higher proportion of female anesthesiologists and surgeons – specifically, more than 35% women – had slightly better outcomes. (Photo by Unsplash+ in collaboration with Getty Images)

But it’s not just about the individual traits of male versus female doctors. The magic seems to happen when there’s a critical mass of diversity. Think of it like a dinner party – if you’re the only one with a different background, you might hesitate to speak up and share your unique perspective. But when there’s a mix of voices around the table, the conversation is enriched by all those different viewpoints. Similarly, the study found that the benefits kicked in when the percentage of women crossed that 35 percent threshold, suggesting that diversity thrives when it reaches a “critical mass.”

This isn’t the first time diversity has been linked to better performance in healthcare and beyond. Previous studies have shown that gender diversity in corporate leadership is associated with increased innovation and financial performance. In scientific research teams, gender diversity has been tied to more novelty and impact in published work. Even in the world of competitive chess, teams with a mix of men and women outperform those with only men or only women. The common thread seems to be that diversity of backgrounds leads to diversity of thought, and that can drive better results.

But achieving this level of diversity in the operating room is no easy feat. Despite nearly equal numbers of men and women graduating from medical school nowadays, women remain underrepresented in the higher ranks of both surgery and anesthesiology. Systemic barriers, unconscious biases, and challenges in work-life integration can make it difficult for women to rise through the ranks and secure leadership positions.

The study’s authors argue that its findings should be a wake-up call for hospitals to prioritize diversity, not just as a matter of fairness but as a strategy for improving patient care. They suggest setting targets for gender representation on surgical teams, actively recruiting and promoting talented women, and fostering an inclusive culture that values diverse perspectives.

“These results are the start of an important shift in understanding the way in which diversity contributes to quality in perioperative care,” Dr. Hallet, the paper’s lead author, says in a media release. “Ensuring a critical mass of female anesthesiologists and surgeons in operative teams isn’t just about equity; it seems necessary to optimize performance. We wanted to challenge the binary discourse of comparing female and male clinicians and rather highlight the importance of diversity as a team asset or bonus in enhancing quality care. Ensuring sex-diversity in operative teams will require intentional effort to ensure systematic recruitment and retainment policies for female physicians, structural interventions such as minimum representation on teams, and monitoring and reporting of teams’ composition to build accountability in existing systems.”

Of course, gender is just one dimension of diversity. The researchers acknowledge that factors like race, ethnicity, age, and background also shape our experiences and outlooks. Future studies will likely explore how these other aspects of diversity intersect with gender to influence healthcare outcomes.

Ultimately, this study offers a powerful reminder that who provides our healthcare matters, not just in terms of individual competence, but in how they work together as a team. As patients, we often don’t get to choose our surgeons or anesthesiologists, but we can advocate for hospitals and healthcare systems that value diversity as a key ingredient in providing the best possible care.

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.

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