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Women Docs Tend to Talk More to Patients

Communication Skills Are Slightly Better, Study Suggests
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Aug. 15, 2002 -- Female primary-care doctors spend more time with their patients and tend to talk to them more than male doctors, a new study suggests. Female physicians also involve their patients more often in decisions about their care.

The gender differences were not extreme -- female docs spent an average of just two minutes more with their patients than men. And the differences in no way suggest that women make better doctors, lead researcher Debra Roter tells WebMD.

"We are not saying that all female doctors are great communicators and all male doctors are not," she says. "There is certainly more overlap in communication styles than there is distinction. Nevertheless, women doctors scored higher on several aspects of communication that we think are critical to establishing a therapeutic [environment]."

Roter and colleagues reviewed 26 studies conducted during the past 35 years. The studies examined communication styles of primary care doctors, internists, pediatricians, obstetrician-gynecologists, and residents.

Female doctors spent an average of 23 minutes talking to each patient, compared with 21 minutes for men. They were also more likely to create a positive atmosphere in the visit with encouragement and reassurance. In addition, female physicians more often responded to expressions of emotion by patients and were more likely to establish a personal rapport with them. The one exception was male ob-gyns, who tended to spend more time with their patients and engage in more emotionally focused talk than their female counterparts.

The findings were reported in the Aug. 14 issue of TheJournal of the American Medical Association.

"Female doctors do seem to have a natural advantage in terms of patient-centered communication, but these are skills that are readily learned," says Roter, who is a public health specialist at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Communication skills training has been shown to be effective in both medical schools and continuing medical education. This type of study shows how important these efforts are."

Family practitioner J. Edward Hill, who leads the American Medical Association's board of trustees, says it is no big surprise that male and female doctors tend to have different communications styles. But that does not mean there is a difference in quality of patient care.

"When I finished reading the study I thought to myself, 'Wow, men and women are different,'" he says with a laugh. "Of course they are different, and isn't that wonderful. But there is nothing here to suggest that patient outcomes are any different at all."

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