UT research finds women receive more workers’ compensation when evaluated by female doctors

Isabella Zeff, General News Reporter

Women receive more workers’ compensation when evaluated by a female doctor, according to a new study from a UT professor that adds to a growing body of research documenting disparities in health care treatment for female patients compared to male patients.

“There are disparities in both the health care treatment that men and women get and also their propensity to be awarded social insurance, things like disability benefits, when they have the same underlying conditions,” said Marika Cabral, associate professor of economics and co-author of the study.

Cabral and the study’s other co-author, Marcus Dillender, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, used administrative data to examine workers’ compensation claims in Texas. When a dispute arises in the claim process, the state will randomly assign a doctor to evaluate the patient.

“We used that randomization to basically understand the effect of being assigned a female doctor versus a male doctor, and how that effect differs across female patients relative to male patients,” Cabral said.

The researchers said they looked at over 70,000 cases and found that when a female doctor evaluated them, female patients were 5% more likely to be considered as disabled and received about 8.5% more benefits than when a male doctor assessed them. Male patients received similar benefits regardless of their doctor’s gender.

Though the study didn’t directly identify the reason for this disparity between male and female doctors and their female patients, Cabral said there is evidence female doctors could differentially empathize with female patients or that male doctors could discriminate against female patients. She also identified a possible difference in communication between a female patient and a female doctor compared to a male doctor.

To investigate what mechanisms could be behind these disparities, the researchers said they conducted surveys with male and female adults about their experiences in the health care system.

“What we find is that women report more negative experiences with doctors than men,” Cabral said. “And they express a greater preference for doctors of the same gender relative to men.”

The research suggests the underrepresentation of female doctors to be at least one “fundamental aspect of the health care system” that could be driving disparity in treatment for female patients compared to male patients, Cabral said.

Doctors act as gatekeepers for workers’ compensation benefits, Cabral said,  so similar gender match effects could be important in other public programs, where other gatekeepers are responsible for distributing public benefits. Another setting where this may apply is social security disability benefits, Dillender said.

“(The study) suggests that doctor gender matters and that a more equitable workforce would improve the outcomes of female patients on average without affecting the outcomes of male patients,” Dillender said.