Research published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that female patients are two to three times more likely to survive a heart attack when the doctor overseeing their care is also a woman. For example, women can experience different heart attack symptoms from those experienced by men.
The researchers found that male physicians appear to have trouble treating female patients.
Studies have shown that diagnosing the symptoms of a heart attack is more hard to do in women. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with a heart condition in their lifetime than women, but diagnosed women are less likely to survive. "Such research might include experimental interventions, or tests of more targeted training, to examine how exposing male physicians more thoroughly to the presentation of female patients might impact outcomes", they say. The gap widens with time: By five years after a heart attack nearly half of women die, compared with 36 percent of men. If a heart attack patient is a woman and her emergency physician is a man, he says, her risk of death suddenly rises by about 12 percent.
"Especially in emergency medicine, where physicians are tasked with saving peoples' lives, it is assumed that physicians should be working to save everyone's lives equally", Laura Huang, professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study authors, told ABC News. While women enter medical school at the same rate as men, they experience higher rates of both burnout and suicide during their time in the field, and men are more likely to advance to higher positions - both largely attributable to gender bias.
A review of almost 582,000 heart attack cases over 19 years showed female patients had a significantly higher survival rate when a woman treated them in the emergency room.
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The study did find two factors that seemed to "protect" patients from a poorer prognosis when treated by a male doctor.
Another variable they cite, omitted in this study, is the previous finding by other researchers that female physicians tend to perform better than male physicians across a wide variety of ailments.
Emergency doctors and cardiologists, however, are wary of jumping to conclusions just yet. Specifically, a study found that patients who were treated by female doctors had lower mortality and readmission rates. It's important that we better understand what is causing this variation in care, and the BHF is already funding research in to how we can improve the outcomes of women who have a heart attack. "[Or] it could be because women are more likely to present atypically and female physicians are better at picking up cues than their male colleagues".
Additionally, it found that even when a male physician successfully treated a female heart attack victim, it was because there was an increased percentage of female physicians based in that emergency department. In the new study everyone was more likely to survive if they saw a female physician, and a study published past year in JAMA Internal Medicine indicated all patients of female physicians had lower mortality and hospital readmission rates.
These findings represent a "fundamental catch-22 for medical providers and female patients", wrote the authors.