Women with heart attacks have higher survival rates when they’re treated by women

In the emergency room, female patients may be more open with female doctors.
In the emergency room, female patients may be more open with female doctors.
Image: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed
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Women don’t have it easy in the medical field. In the US, there are about half as many of them working, compared to male doctors, for an average of $105,000 less annually. They are excellent physicians, though. Already, female doctors have been shown to have fewer elderly patients die under their care. They provide better treatment for type II diabetes, and speak more candidly and comprehensively to their patients about behaviors that may affect their health.

New research finds that female physicians also do a better job than their male counterparts when it comes to treating female patients experiencing heart attacks, with female patients two to three times more likely to survive when their care is overseen by a woman.

In a sample of 20 years’ worth of emergency-room data from nearly 582,000 patients presenting with heart attacks in Florida, women with heart attacks treated by male doctors in the emergency department survived 86.6% of the time—1.5% below the baseline survival rate of 88.1%, which is also the survival rate for men who were treated by women,

The research team, from the University of Minnesota, Washington University in St. Louis, and Harvard, additionally found that male doctors who had treated more women previously had slightly lower mortality rates for female patients with heart attacks, as did men working in hospitals with more female physicians. Overall, patients who were treated by a doctor of the same gender were more likely to survive, but the difference in mortality rates between male and female patients treated by women was negligible.

What explains the disparity in the outcomes for female patients depending on the gender of their physician? It could have something to do with the way that male doctors perceive female patients. It also could be tied to the difference in the physical symptoms that men and women tend to present in the case of cardiac arrest.

Most of us tend to think of heart attacks as a staggering pain in the chest, which is true for many (but not all) male patients. In women, though, they present with seemingly unrelated side effects, like indigestion or pain in other parts of the body. Because these symptoms only occur in roughly 30% of men, they’re considered “atypical,” the Atlantic notes, which may make them less likely to be picked up in a speedy diagnosis.

The consequences of these differences are grave. Women are more likely to delay going to the hospital for a heart attack, and also may not be seen as quickly because their symptoms are dismissed as less urgent (read: not like a man’s).

The new study suggests that perhaps female physicians are better at recognizing these “atypical” symptoms of heart attacks as the norm for their own gender. Or, it could be that female patients feel more comfortable speaking with a female doctor about the extent and severity of their symptoms. Or, as Klea Bertakis, a physician and researcher at the University of California, Davis, told STAT, it could be that female doctors are more likely to go back and forth with their patients to arrive at the right diagnosis, in contrast to male doctors, who are more likely to come to a diagnosis based on their charts and patient history.

Whatever the reason, the findings highlight the need for a diverse hospital employment. ”I think what’s critical to emphasize is the importance of understanding the diversity of the patient community and ensuring that the physician pool is diverse as well,” Brad Greenwood, the study’s lead author, told CNN.

The research, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, suggests that one way to improve patient outcomes would be to include more women in emergency departments. That’s a good idea. But perhaps an even faster way to improve hospital care would be to figure out how to help male doctors learn to communicate and practice care like female physicians.