MONDAY, March 18, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- When selecting a health care provider, people may have a personal preference between a man or a woman, but a doctor's gender does not affect patients' health care costs or their risk of early death, a new study reveals.
The findings challenge some previous studies' conclusions that better doctor-patient communication and other medical-practice behaviors often associated with female doctors mean that their patients may use health care services less often and therefore have lower costs.
In this new study, researchers analyzed data from more than 21,000 people aged 18 and older who took part in the U.S. Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys from 2002 to 2008. The investigators found that a doctor's gender did not affect patient health care costs, prescription drug costs, deaths, or the number of visits to hospitals, emergency rooms and medical offices.
The study appears in the March/April issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.
The findings suggest that if the goal is to reduce costs and the risk of death, there is no reason to emphasize recruitment or training of either male or female doctors, lead study author Anthony Jerant, professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, Davis, said in a university news release.
Instead, the focus should be on patients' smoking habits and diet, which are known to increase the use of health care services and the risk of death, he suggested.
Jerant and his colleagues also found that female doctors were more likely than their male colleagues to care for female patients who were young, college educated and resided in cities. This suggests that certain patient characteristics may be associated with preferences for male or female doctors.
The study also found that more female doctors than male doctors were non-white.
"Female providers are contributing to greater diversity in the health care provider workforce, which is an important aim both for social equity and to ensure that patients can choose providers they feel comfortable with," Jerant said in the news release.
"However, our findings clearly emphasize the importance of looking beyond gender to determine the patient and provider characteristics that can positively influence the process, quality and costs of care," he added.
The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality offers tips for choosing quality health care.