Should Pharma-Doctor Communication Be Also Gender-Specific?

Regardless of situations, while selecting a suitable doctor for patients, or for that matter, pharma companies engage with them for commercial reasons, their gender doesn’t matter much to many.

What one generally looks for is, whether they are General Practitioners (GPs), General Surgeons (GSs) or Specialists in various disease areas, such as cardiac, metabolic, bones and joints, cancer and so on. This has been happening, despite several research studies pointing out a number of important gender-based behavioral differences between most male and female doctors, often leading to a significant difference in patient outcomes.

Before proceeding further, let me admit up front that there may be some exceptions to this general scenario. For example, certain female patients may prefer being examined by the female doctors only. Similarly, a few drug companies may be tailoring the content and the process of their communication based on the target doctors’ age.

In this article, I shall try to focus on this area based on a number of important research findings. The objective being whether medical communications of pharma players should also factor-in the gender-specific nuances among male and female doctors. This is because, such differences impact clinical outcomes and happens irrespective of whether they are GPs or specialists. Let me kick-start the discussion with the following question:

“Does gender matter when choosing a doctor?”

This interesting point was raised in an article, titled “Should You Choose a Female Doctor?”, appeared in ‘The New York Times (NYT)’ on August 14, 2018. Let me put across the essence of it, quoting from some large research findings.

The August 21, 2018 study, titled “Patient–physician gender concordance and increased mortality among female heart attack patients,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). This study covered more than 580,000 heart patients admitted to emergency rooms in Florida between 1991 and 2010. After a thorough scrutiny, the researchers noted that:

  • The mortality rates for both women and men were lower when the treating physician was female.

Consequently, it appears, gender does matter, while choosing a doctor for better treatment outcomes. Nevertheless, just one illustration in this regard may not possibly be enough to drive home this point. Thus, let me quote from another important study. This one is a Harvard study that included more than 1.5 million hospitalized Medicare patients and arrived at similar conclusions, with the finding as stated hereunder.

Lower 30-day mortality under female internists than male counterparts:

This large study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine on February 2017 also concludes:Hospitalized patients who receive care from female general internists have lower 30-day mortality and readmission rates than those patients cared for by male internists.

“The difference in mortality was slight – about half a percentage point – but when applied to the entire Medicare population, it translates to 32,000 fewer deaths,” reported the above NYT article while commenting on this subject. I shall come to this finding in just a bit.

Why patient outcomes are different under the care of male and female doctors? 

To get an answer to this question, just as several other previous studies, the findings of the above issue of JAMA Internal Medicine also suggest more studies in this area. The aim is to zero-in on the key differences in practice patterns between male and female physicians, which may have important clinical implications for patient outcomes.

The researchers observed, understanding exactly why these differences in care quality and practice patterns exist may provide valuable insights into improving quality of care for all patients, irrespective of who provides their care.

Curiously, this question was answered in a 2002 study published in the JAMA that found female doctors spend more times with patients.

Female doctors spend more times with patients:

The paper, titled “Physician gender effects in medical communication: a meta-analytic review” wanted to find out why patient outcomes are different under the care of male and female doctors?This study was published in the August 14, 2002 issue of JAMA. It found, “Female primary care physicians engage in more communication that can be considered patient centered and have longer visits than their male colleagues.”The average difference in time spent with patients between male and female physicians is about 2 minutes, or 10 percent, per visit.

The researchers also found that female physicians engage in communication that mostly relates to the larger life context of patient conditions. It includes addressing psychosocial issues through related questions and counseling, greater use of emotional talk, more positive talk, and more active enlistment of patient input. From this perspective, they commented: When taken together, these elements comprise a pattern that can be broadly considered ‘patient-centered’ interviewing.

Would tailoring pharma communication accordingly fetch better dividend? 

Such highly similar findings, as evidenced by many reports, over a considerable period of time, add much credence to an important fact. These vindicate the concept that ‘patient-outcomes are better when cared by female doctors as compared to their male counterparts.’ In the pharma context, the subsequent question that surfaces: Can this finding be put to use while developing a tailor-made communication strategy with appropriate content for female doctors, harvesting a rich commercial dividend?

No doubt, before doing so, more data need to be generated and analyzed to corroborate the utility of the same in the pharma business. That said, the good news is, the work has already started in this area.

Some interesting recent findings on pharma-doctor interactions:

As reported by Fierce Pharma on October 26, 2018, moving towards this direction, CMI/Compas ventured into testing the water. It planned to find out whether drug companies should develop male and female doctor-specific communication strategy and content for more productive engagement with them. After an elaborate data analysis, CMI/Compas found the following:

  • As the most important source of new product information 59 percent of older-male-doctors rank pharma sales reps much higher. Whereas, only 46 percent of older-female-doctors’ think so.
  • 47 percent of older-male-doctors were most likely to see sales reps without any restrictions. Whereas, less than 40 percent of the other group saw reps without placing any hurdles to their visits.
  • Female physicians of all generations were found more likely to rank medical websites and online drug reference guides as more important tools than their male counterparts.
  • Women doctors are also likely to encourage patients using websites, electronic medical records and patient support programs more frequently than their male counterparts.
  • After receiving requisite information from pharma source, especially younger women doctors, are more likely:

- To change a patient’s treatment (20 percent).

- Try a new product (22 percent).

- Conduct more research using other sources (40 percent).

Conclusion:

These research findings do provide a fresh food for thought for the pharma strategists to ascertain whether a new ground exists to further hone the conversation between drug companies and the doctors. More specific point to ponder is, whether an avant-garde, as it werecustomer-segmentation strategy be put to use, while devising a sharply focused communication and content for the male and female doctors, separately for each.

Coming back to where I started from: Should pharma-doctor communication be gender-specific? In my view, enough credible evidences, as captured in several large studies, send a clear signal towards an affirmative answer. Nevertheless, individual company would still be required to meticulously vet it out internally, for the best possible results.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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