The Data Shows Women Make Better Doctors, So Why Do They Face a Glass Ceiling?

The case of Soumya Swaminathan rising to the top ranks at the WHO is an exception.

Soumya Swaminathan. Credit: YouTube

Soumya Swaminathan’s appointment earlier this year to the position of deputy director general for programmes at the World Health Organization was a moment of pride for Indians. It stirred plenty of excitement and received widespread coverage in the media. Not only was an Indian being recognised on a global health platform but the leader also happened to be a woman.

Swaminathan has had a storied career as a public health expert, with various key appointments in a directorial capacity as well as several significant scientific contributions to medical literature. She has been the director of National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis at Chennai, a secretary of the Department of Health Research at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

Interestingly, few in India are aware of the fact that she is a pediatric pulmonologist by training. In fact, pediatric pulmonology is a specialty essentially unknown to many Indians. She studied at the Armed Forces Medical College and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences prior to moving to Los Angeles in the 1980s to serve as a fellow at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which is affiliated to the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California.

Soon after I heard of her appointment as the deputy director general, I spoke to her professor in the 1980s and my colleague, Dr Cheryl Lew. I wasn’t surprised to hear from  Lew that  Swaminathan was by far the best fellow she had trained in four decades of professorship. “Self-effacing, soft-spoken and brilliant” is how professor Lew fondly recalled her. “We tried our best to keep her as faculty here but…” Lew lamented. But I could see genuine satisfaction in her voice that one of her students had gone on to achieve tremendous heights. I could sense that rare mix of pride and admiration.

But the case of Swaminathan is an exception. Men continue to dominate in numbers as far as healthcare leadership roles are concerned, including in the Western world.

Over the course of almost 30 years in medicine, I have found women to be better doctors; more connected to patients and their families, more compassionate and more compulsive towards ensuring that no errors are committed in provision of care. And now there is data to suggest that my hunch has been correct.

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study published last year in The Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that female doctors may be better for their patients than male doctors. The study was limited to data about elderly patients who had state-funded insurance and were hospitalised. It found that the patients cared for by women doctors did better in terms of death and readmission rates within a 30-day period. Though the study was limited to a particular population, it was significant in that nationwide data of 15,83,028 hospitalisations were looked at.

The researchers suggested that male and female physicians may function differently, with the latter more likely to practice evidence-based medicine and provide more patient-centered care.

Interestingly, another study published earlier this year in the British Medical Journal revealed that women surgeons were better than their male counterparts when it came to performance in the operating theatre. More specifically, patients operated upon by women had lower 30-day mortality and a lower complication rate, compared to those operated upon by men.

The authors could not conclusively attribute the better performance of female surgeons to any specific factors. However, several hypothetical explanations were offered including delivery of care by women surgeons that was more congruent with guidelines, superior communication, better theoretical knowledge and greater willingness to collaborate.

Finally, data even seems to suggest that women are better leaders.

Swaminathan’s success may be symbolic but it is time to recognise and honour women leaders – in healthcare and beyond. In getting rid of the glass ceilings that limit their advancement to leadership roles, we will not only be correcting an injustice but also doing the right thing by patients.

Jay Desai is a neurologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and a member of the faculty at Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California.