New Study Shows Female Doctors Spend More Time with Patients, But at What Cost?

Across the U.S., the gender wage gap is still hovering at around 82%. Women still make significantly less in this country compared to their male colleagues, and the healthcare industry is no exception.  

Male doctors and physicians tend to make tens of thousands of dollars more per year than female doctors; a new study from The New England Journal of Medicine may help reveal part of the reason why.

It shows that female doctors tend to spend around 15% more time with their patients, usually striking up a friendly conversation before asking the patient about their health. However, this could end up depriving female providers of the money they rightfully deserve.

Patients Over Profits

The study shows that female doctors tend to spend an additional 2.4 minutes, on average, with their patients compared to their male colleagues.

To conduct the study, researchers analyzed patient data from over 24 million primary healthcare visits in 2017 using Athenahealth, an electronic health records system used by primary care providers. Overall, the study included 5% of all physicians in the U.S., including those working at the same practice. They compared “timestamps” for patients based on when they entered and exited the doctor’s office.

The results show female doctors spending more time with their patients, which meant seeing fewer patients over the course of the year and earning less revenue.

One of the authors, Hannah Neprash, an assistant professor of health policy at the University of Minnesota, says the results didn’t surprise her.

“I’m a female primary care physician, and I often spend time asking about my patients’ families and work before we talk about their blood pressure or birth control. Often patients come in for a straightforward medical concern, and I find myself discussing how stressed out they are about childcare, or how hard it’s been to pay the bills on time during the COVID-19 crisis.”

This could help explain why men often make more than women in healthcare. The median salary for male physicians in the United States is almost $86,000 more per year than the median salary for female physicians, according to a study published in 2016. When landing their first job right out of school, male doctors tend to make $36,000 more per year than female graduates.

Doctors usually get paid based on the number of patients they see within a given year, not on how long they spend with each patient or the overall quality of care they receive.

Different Practice Styles

Naprash cautions that spending more time with patients isn’t necessarily good for their health. It’s possible to deliver the same results in less time, but surveys show us that most people tend to prefer spending more time with their doctor than less. It gives them time to ask questions instead of feeling like they’re being rushed through the process.

Dr. Katherine Gold, a family physician and associate professor at the University of Michigan, says these differences are often rooted in gender. “Different types of topics are addressed with male and female physicians. We know that women have longer visits in general. They’re twice as likely to raise emotional content in their visits, which generally takes longer to manage.”

We also know that women tend to go to the doctor more often than men, and women tend to prefer female doctors, which can increase the duration of these visits.

There’s also evidence to support the idea that patients of female doctors tend to be more satisfied with the level of care they receive. A widely cited study from 2016 found that when elderly hospitalized patients are cared for by female physicians, they are less likely to die or return to the hospital compared to patients who have male doctors.

Naprash says, “It is really clear that both patients and doctors want to be able to spend more time with each other. It’s the clearest survey preference ever. It’s strange to see such a concordant preference, and see it not happening.”

At the end of the day, male physicians may be less inclined to strike up a conversation with their patients or discuss emotional issues. They also may be more selective with their time if it means earning more money at the end of the year. 

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