Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women alike in the United States. But it’s more often fatal for women — 26 percent of women 45 and older die within one year of an initial heart attack, compared with 19 percent of men, according to the American Heart Association.
There is one factor that just may save the lives of women who experience heart attacks, though. According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, women who have heart attacks may be more likely to die when treated by male doctors in emergency rooms. The study, which analyzed data from more than 500,000 male and female heart attack patients in Florida ERs between 1991 and 2010, found that female heart attack patients who were treated by female emergency room physicians were two to three times more likely to survive than those patients who were cared for by their male counterparts.
The researchers theorize that the difference could be due to female doctors’ ability to better understand women and how their symptoms may present differently than that of men, as well as a superior ability to communicate with their female patients.
Getty Images | Theo Heimann
Heart attack symptoms can be different for men and women. Some lesser-known signs include jaw pain, back pain, discomfort in both arms (not just the left) and nausea.
“I don’t think this should be interpreted as ‘women should avoid male physicians,’” Brad Greenwood, lead author of the study and an associate professor at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, told Consumer Reports. “But making sure that female patients advocate for themselves and are not dismissed is important. Making sure you’re heard is important.”
Getty Images | Scott Olson
While male patients were also slightly more likely to survive when treated by a female doctor, those numbers were not deemed statistically significant in the study, suggesting that the challenges are unique to male doctors treating female patients.
“As a doctor who is very aware of gender bias particularly as it relates to cardiac disease, one can’t help but wonder if improved outcomes stem from the fact that female physicians take women’s symptoms more seriously, thereby expediting the workup and cardiac care of these women and improving mortality,” said Dr. Jennifer Haythe, co-director of Columbia Women’s Heart Center at the Columbia University Medical Center, when asked about the study by Reuters Health.