For women suffering from the symptoms of a heart attack, a team of researchers from Harvard Business School has a very simple recommendation that could save lives: request a woman physician.
The team analyzed nearly two decades of records for every patient admitted to Florida emergency rooms with a heart attack between 1991 and 2010. They found female patients treated by male physicians are more likely to die, compared with either gender treated by female doctors or women treated by female doctors.
Despite cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of mortality in American women, there is a societal stigma that heart attacks affect men rather than women. Women are less likely to survive in the years following a heart attack and it could be because of how they are treated.
“These results suggest a reason why gender inequality in heart attack mortality persists: Most physicians are male, and male physicians appear to have trouble treating female patients,” wrote the team. “The fact that gender concordance (that is, men treating men or women treating women) correlates with whether a patient survives a heart attack has implications for theory and practice."
Additionally, the team found survival rates of female patients treated by male doctors increased when more women doctors were in the emergency department, and when male doctors had treated more female patients.
Women suffering from a heart attack are more likely to wait before seeking medical treatment and are less likely to be taken to a properly-equipped hospital, making them nearly twice as likely (12 percent) to die in the hospital than men. Furthermore, heart attacks can often present differently in men and woman. Both sexes experience chest pain and discomfort commonly associated with a heart attack, women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain. On average, men experience a heart attack at age 65 and women 72.
The authors say their work calls on the importance of having a greater representation of female doctors in the medical field. While 40 percent of medical school students are women, they are underwhelmingly represented in medicinal leadership – just 15 percent of department chairs are women and only 30 percent of women in academic medicine have received tenured positions. As well as leveling the medical field, they say it is also important that society widens its perspective on heart disease to understand how commonly heart disease affects both genders.