How exactly does one achieve true healing? How can you best protect your health as you age? The process is becoming ever more murky.
Not long ago, it seemed so much clearer. If you had a particular health problem, you found and then took a drug known to manage it. Drugs that did not work any better than a placebo were discarded. Those which could, were prescribed en masse. It seemed a simple, linear process.
But recently, studies have shown that it’s not quite so simple. Sometimes people are healed even when they take a placebo, despite the fact that it shouldn’t work. Sometimes, people are healed without taking any drugs at all, by starting a regular exercise routine or by changing their diet. Sometimes, people are healed through other mechanisms that science cannot verify, such as the soothing touch of massage therapy, or the stern needles of acupuncture. And now, apparently, some are healed through the simple act of seeing a female physician rather than a male one.
In an intriguing new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, patients treated by a female doctor were 4% less likely to die, and 5% less likely to be readmitted to the hospital than if they were treated by a male one. These numbers may seem small, but when extrapolated throughout the entire population, it means that 32,000 fewer people would die every year if they were treated by a female physician. Or, put in another way, a female doctor can save the same number of people who die annually in automobile crashes.
One can’t help wondering why. The improved health outcomes in the study were relatively small, but researchers were unable to eliminate the gains by adjusting for the type of medical condition, the age of the patient (all were seniors), or the severity of the illness. With no additional data available, researchers can only theorize as to why people are less likely to die when cared for by a female physician.
One naturally jumps to the assumption that women are generally better caregivers than men, with stronger communication skills, a greater aptitude for listening to their patients, and a tendency to spend more time with them. Though hard to quantify, these may well be the critical factors that explain the results. After all, when people know they are being heard, when a more encouraging environment has been created in the doctor’s office, people are more likely to voice their concerns. If these concerns are validated, rather than dismissed or discounted, then the doctor will have more information with which to make an accurate diagnosis, and hence provide a better health outcome.
Until further studies are done, we can only theorize as to why female doctors provide better health outcomes than male doctors. But there are some hints that the more open and caring environment in a female doctor’s office my indeed be the critical factor. In previous studies, female doctors demonstrated better communication skills, and were more adept at responding to both verbal and non-verbal cues among their patients. They were also more likely to suggest preventative care options before resorting to drugs, and to adhere more closely to clinical guidelines.
It could be that what this new study is really showing is the importance of empathy and caring in patient/doctor interactions. You can have all the knowledge necessary to be a doctor, or a healer, but if you don’t have a good bedside manner, healing can be elusive. No matter how many expensive tests you use, no matter the extent of your clinical knowledge, it seems that people still heal better when they feel cared for and heard.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.