How to Establish Trust and Respect as a Female Doctor

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Trust is at the heart of the doctor-patient relationship.

Studies suggest that female physicians face unique challenges in gaining the trust of male patients. Further, women doctors are less likely to retain men as patients. 

In analyzing more than two million visits to primary care doctors, athenahealth found that men with commercial insurance returned about 40 percent of the time if the doctor was a woman, compared to 50 percent if the doctor was a man.

The study also found that men’s comfort level declined sharply when more than one female health care provider was in the room.

A Question of Confidence 

In a 2017 op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Faye Reiff-Pasarew, a hospitalist, tells of an elderly male patient who complained about being treated by “a young girl.”

Dr. Reiff-Pasarew, who is 34, had heard similar remarks from other male patients and was deeply concerned. 

She writes: “This is not about being thin-skinned. My job is to provide the best possible care and to do that, I need my patients’ trust. Caring for them depends on their confidence in me.”

Dr. Reiff-Pasarew called on medical schools, hospitals, and private practice groups to acknowledge the challenges faced by female physicians in treating male patients and to work toward solutions. She advocated featuring women doctors in advertising campaigns and enhancing med school curriculum to include instruction for female physicians in communicating with confidence and responding to demeaning remarks.

The Challenges Male Patients Present 

Dr. Indra Cidambi is founder and medical director of the Center for Network Therapy, New Jersey’s first state licensed outpatient detox facility, and vice president of the New Jersey Society of Addiction Medicine.

“For a female physician, a male patient is somewhat of a challenge,” she says. “Men usually try to minimize their symptoms and also find it hard to express their feelings and emotions. Being a female, the physician has to be able to read between the lines in order to understand their male patients better.”

She says it takes more interaction to establish a rapport with the male patient, which she views as a function of how much they trust their physician. 

How to Establish Trust

According to Dr. Cidambi: “Male patients like to hear straightforward and honest answers, as they usually are not good at understanding unspoken words. So, telling them as it is and accepting that you do not have all the answers at the moment helps reassure the male patient that you will be upfront with him. 
Counter-intuitively, calling them out when they avoid or minimize an issue, such as the real reason for their relapse, also conveys to them that you are not going to accept beating around the bush. Once they see that you are genuine, they are more willing to put their trust in you.”

In her experience, it is common for male patients to throw a female doctor a challenge to see how she handles it. 

“I once had a male patient who exaggerated his level of addiction by saying, ‘I shoot heroin into an artery in my neck. Have you ever treated a patient who has done that?’” she recalls. “I understood that he wanted to either surprise me with the severity of his addiction or wanted to see if it threw me off.”

Her response was that their goal was to work together to help the patient achieve sobriety. She would be the navigator and the patient would be the driver. 

“That broke the ice and I was able to get him firmly on the path to recovery,” she says.

Alicia Lazzaro