When Gender Bias Becomes A Matter of Survival

An analysis of heart attack cases reveals how unconscious bias can result in worse outcomes for women than for men.

Gender bias is often discussed in corporate contexts, but a recent paper suggests that gender bias can mean the difference between life and death for women in hospital settings. Three researchers recently analyzed data related to approximately 582,000 heart attack cases at Florida hospitals between 1991 and 2010. After accounting for factors such as age and medical history, they discovered that female patients were more likely to survive cardiac events when treated by female physicians.

Comparing outcomes for women treated by male doctors to those for women treated by female doctors, the researchers found that 1,500 more of the women treated by men would have lived had their survival rate been the same as for those treated by women.

The presence of female doctors in the emergency room also had a positive effect. That is, women treated by male doctors with a significant number of female colleagues also survived at higher rates, although these rates were not as high as for women treated by female physicians. Moreover, the more women a male doctor had treated in the past, the better his female patients fared.

The paper was co-authored by Brad Greenwood of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis; Seth Carnahan of the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri; and Laura Huang of Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Our work corroborates prior research showing that female doctors tend to produce better patient outcomes than male doctors,” says Carnahan in an Olin Business School publication. He adds that the research shows “the benefit of having a female doctor is particularly stark for a female patient.”

The researchers note that “male bias” could lead some male doctors to miss important signs of heart attacks in women. Such bias could be addressed through training programs that show “how men and women might present symptoms differently,” says Carnahan. This study also has lessons for leaders in other organizational contexts where unconscious bias could lead to different outcomes for women and men.

“Patient-Physician Gender Concordance and Increased Mortality Among Female Heart Attack Patients” was published ahead of print August 6, 2018, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.