Harvard study issues shocking warning for female heart attack victims

Male doctors are believed to misdiagnose heart problems for women or underestimate their risks

Male doctors are believed to misdiagnose heart problems for women or underestimate their risksPeopleimages Getty

When treated by female doctors, women suffering from heart attacks are more likely to survive, according to a new study released by the National Academy of Science.

"Having training programs that are more gender neutral, or showing how men and women might present symptoms differently, could improve outcomes for female patients", Carnahan said.

The researchers found that male physicians appear to have trouble treating female patients.

Scientists in the USA reviewed almost 582,000 heart attack cases over a period of 19 years.

The study confirms what years of research on "gender concordance" have shown - that matching the gender of the doctor and patient can lead to better health outcomes.

Under female doctors, 12 per cent of women died and 11.8 per cent of men. Moreover, females are somewhat more likely to experience a different kind of common symptoms of heart attack than men, as per the American Heart Association.

"You have highly trained experts with life or death on the line, and yet the gender match between the physician and the patient seems to matter a great deal", said Carnahan, one of a handful of new faculty at the Olin Business School.

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"For example, a propensity among women to delay seeking treatment and the presentation of symptoms that differ from those of men". Using data on 582,000 heart attack patients admitted to Florida emergency rooms from 1991 to 2010, researchers found that women treated by male doctors were 1.5% less likely to survive than males treated by female doctors.

They found that 13.3% of female patients seen by a male physician died, compared with 12% of women treated by another woman. Either way, the study suggests that when the proportion of female physicians in an emergency department rises by 5 percent, the survival rates of the women treated there rise by 0.4 percentage points. Even after accounting for these factors, women were still less likely to survive when treated by a male ER doctor.

Emergency doctors and cardiologists, however, are wary of jumping to conclusions just yet.

However, for patients treated by male physicians, the gender gap in survival more than tripled to 0.7 percent.

Female doctors may also simply be performing at least some parts of the job better than their male counterparts do.

These findings represent a "fundamental catch-22 for medical providers and female patients", wrote the authors. That could mean that "female patients are more comfortable advocating for themselves with a female physician" or that "male physicians aren't getting all the cues they need to make the diagnosis" when dealing with female patients, he said. They extrapolated their findings a bit, and concluded that some 32,000 lives would be saved if male physicians could achieve the same outcomes as female physicians every year.

"It's important to not get caught up in the idea that women are better doctors", said Dr. Klea Bertakis, a physician and researcher at the University of California, Davis, who studies gender dynamics in health care.

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