MMM#9: Patriarchy Under the Knife

A recent study appeared in the news which claimed that women were more likely to die when operated on by men than by women whilst there appeared to be no differences when either men and women were operated on by women. The study, conducted by the University of Toronto in Canada, analysed data from 1.3 million patients and found that women were a third more likely to die when operated on by a male surgeon.

This reminded me of a similar news story that appeared a while ago about a study that suggested that patients in general were more likely to die during operations carried out by men rather than women. The conclusion drawn from this earlier study was that women were better surgeons than men and it was necessary to increase their numbers in light of this. As you might imagine, there were a number of triumphant response articles written by feminists either highlighting female superiority or bemoaning the gender imbalance in this area of medicine. Feminists will accept sex differences if it suits their narrative to do so.

The reaction to this recent news has generated a similar response. Researchers from the study itself even suggested that male surgeons might “act on subconscious, deeply ingrained biases, stereotypes and attitudes” as well as suggesting that men and women’s differences in communication style might also have an effect. It was also suggested that the solution to this apparent issue was to train more female surgeons so that the gender imbalance in surgery would end and there would be fewer female deaths.

Presumably, the idea that there might be ways to improve male surgeons’ performances to decrease the number of deaths, if this is indeed an issue, was never contemplated since this wouldn’t fix the male dominance in surgery. This was because the issue the media – and, it seems, some of the researchers themselves – were primarily concerned about was not the safety of patients during operations, but the idea of ingrained sexism in the medical profession.

Hannah Fearn, writing in the i newspaper, argues that the reason behind this disparity is because women have a constant awareness and fear of male power and authority:

“Every interaction between a man and woman in our society is coloured by this imbalance – and the relationship between male surgeon and female patient is the most extreme of these scenarios.”

Hannah Fearn

Earlier in the article, she also claims:

“Medical misogyny is already well documented in Western societies. In the UK, the “belief” barrier that many women need to hurdle before female pain is taken seriously inside the NHS is staggeringly high.”

Hannah Fearn

If this quote is to be believed, it would appear that the NHS is ignorant of women’s healthcare needs due to being too male-dominated. This is despite the fact that this recent government mandate to improve the NHS states it will improve outcomes for major diseases (page 20) by providing screening for cancers like breast and cervical which predominantly/exclusively affect women without listing any male-specific types like prostate or testicular. Similarly, the mandate states it will reduce maternal mortality and support women in senior leadership roles, alongside those who are black, Asian, etc. (pages 20-21).

It would be interesting if the Toronto study had found the opposite result of more male patients dying when operated on by women than men. I can imagine in this scenario either the news being buried or explained away as something like men making poorer health choices.

Alternatively, Tom Utley, writing in the Daily Mail, expresses scepticism to some of the conclusions drawn from this study in an article describing how statistics in general can be misleading and used to make any point you want to make. Whilst conceding that women may be better at communicating than men – I have my own thoughts about that, but I’ll leave that for another day – Mr. Utley writes:

“a far more plausible explanation is that the most experienced consultant surgeons – those entrusted with the most dangerous and life-threatening cases – are chiefly men. In fact, in Britain 86 per cent of consultant surgeons are male. Meanwhile women, who for all sorts of reasons (mostly to do with child-rearing) tend to be less experienced with the scalpel, are generally left to concentrate on the simpler operations. So it’s no wonder if male surgeons have a lower success rate.”

Tom Utley

While admitting to not knowing why there was no difference in male patients, Tom Utley argued that there were other factors to consider before we could conclude that women were better surgeons than men. I’m inclined to agree with him. One possible factor is the different life expectancies of men and women. Since women tend to live longer than men, there is a greater chance that patients of an advanced age that are operated on are predominantly women. Since older people are more likely to die during an operation than younger people, this may be why women are more likely to die during surgery. It’s also likely that men are the majority of surgeons who operate on elderly patients. It would be ironic if this was the primary explanation!

While I don’t think this study was conducted with the aim to challenge the so-called patriarchal field of medicine, any mismatch between the sexes which may affect women is inevitably jumped on as being down to men and society as a whole not taking women seriously even though the opposite is usually true.

Whatever the truth behind the study, it made me think about this Weird Al Yankovic song which parodied a well known Madonna hit and made it about a hapless, incompetent surgeon which is probably what feminists think the medical profession is like.

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