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More women on surgical team could improve outcomes, researchers say

By Ernie Mundell, HealthDay News
Hospitals in Canada that had 35% or more surgeons and anesthesiologists who were female on staff tended to produce better outcomes for patients undergoing surgery, a new study has found.
 
 Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News
Hospitals in Canada that had 35% or more surgeons and anesthesiologists who were female on staff tended to produce better outcomes for patients undergoing surgery, a new study has found. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News

Heading for surgery? The ratio of women to men in the operating room could influence your recovery, new research shows.

Hospitals in Canada that had 35% or more surgeons and anesthesiologists who were female on staff tended to produce better outcomes for patients undergoing surgery, a new study has found.

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"Ensuring a critical mass of female anesthesiologists and surgeons in operative teams isn't just about equity; it seems necessary to optimize performance," said study lead author Dr. Julie Hallet, a surgeon and associate scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

Her team published its findings Wednesday in the British Journal of Surgery.

Operating rooms are notoriously male-dominated spaces: According to the study authors, in the Canadian province of Ontario just 6.7% of surgeries are performed by women, and "the number of female anesthesiologists and surgeons have increased by only 5% over 10 years."

That needs to change, Hallet's group said, because -- as in other fields -- gender diversity in the workspace introduces "different skills, knowledge, experiences, beliefs, values and leadership styles."

But does any of that matter in terms of patient outcomes?

To find out, the researchers tracked the histories of almost 710,000 surgeries for adult patients, all of who underwent major elective inpatient procedures at 88 Ontario hospitals between 2009 and 2019.

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On average, women made up 28% of anesthesiologists and surgeons at the hospitals. Women performed 6.7% of the surgeries and were the attending anesthesiologist 27% of the time.

However, hospitals where females made up 35% or more of the surgeons and anesthesiologists had a 3% reduction in their odds of 90-day "postoperative major morbidity" (complications and illness) among patients, compared to hospitals with gender diversity that fell below that threshold, the study found.

That 35% mark seems significant: In prior studies from the United States, Italy, Australia, and Japan, post-op outcomes also began to improve once female participation in surgical reached 35%, Hallet's team noted.

"These results are the start of an important shift in understanding the way in which diversity contributes to quality in peri-operative care," Hallet said in a journal news release.

She believes there's still a long road to change what has long been a male-dominated field.

"Ensuring sex diversity in operative teams will require intentional effort to ensure systematic recruitment and retainment policies for female physicians, structural interventions such as minimum representation on teams, and monitoring and reporting of teams' composition to build accountability in existing systems," Hallet said.

More information

Get tips on preparing for surgery at the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

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