Background: Research has raised concerns about gender bias in medicine; that is, are women and men being treated differently because of gender stereotyped attitudes among physicians? We investigated gender differences in the diagnosis and management of neck pain as proposed in a written test. The design eliminated differences related to communication and patient behavior.
Methods: In a national examination for Swedish interns, using modified essay questions, the examinees were allocated to suggest management of neck pain in either a male or a female bus driver with a tense family situation. The case description was identical with the exception of patient gender. The open answers were coded for analysis. Two hundred thirty-nine interns (41% women) participated. Chi-square-tests were used to measure differences in proportions, and t test was used to evaluate differences in means.
Results: In certain areas, significant gender differences were detected. Proposals of nonspecific somatic diagnoses, psychosocial questions, drug prescriptions, and the expressed need of diagnostic support from a physiotherapist and an orthopedist were more common with females. Laboratory tests were requested more often in males. Both male and female physicians contributed to the gender differences. When assessing the impact of the patient-doctor relationship for health outcome, male physicians underlined the importance of patient compliance foremost in female patients, and female physicians did the opposite.
Conclusions: The results suggest that physicians' gendered expectations are involved in creating gender differences in medicine. The inclusion of gender theory and discussions about gender attitudes into medical school curricula is recommended to bring about awareness of the problem.