Published: Thu, August 09, 2018
Medicine | By Douglas Stevenson

Women more likely to die of heart attack if doctor is male

Women more likely to die of heart attack if doctor is male

Should women request physicians of the same gender? A study out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers a new theory for this disparity: It suggests that men, who account for the majority of doctors, are worse at treating female heart attack patients than their female counterparts.

Interestingly, the "gender bias" diminished when there were more women in the emergency department, and as men treated more women. Women are less likely to survive in the years following a heart attack and it could be because of how they are treated. In that case, 12.6 percent of men died compared to 13.3 percent of women.

A couple years ago, there was a lot of buzz about research that showed that female doctors are better than male docs. These data allowed the team to measure important factors such as the age, race, and medical history of patients, hospital quality, and more.

'Our work corroborates prior research showing that female doctors tend to produce better patient outcomes than male doctors, ' said Seth Carnahan, a co-author of the study from Washington University in St Louis.

Based purely on the statistics, it showed that women treated by male doctors were less likely to survive than patients of either gender treated by female physicians, or male patients treated by male physicians. In addition, they found that survival rates among female patients treated by male physicians improved with an increase in the percentage of female physicians in the emergency department and an increase in the number of female patients previously treated by the physician.

"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.

That doesn't mean we can only be healthy if our doctor looks just like us. "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", the study reads. "Spurious signals sometimes come up [in research], so this should be replicated", she says.

This is backed by one of the findings which showed that, as a male physician treats more women, his mortality rate after treatment decreases. That, said Greenwood, could be because female doctors might share their experience in tackling heart attacks in women. "And male physicians could learn a thing or two from our female colleagues about how to achieve better outcomes".

The new study highlights the importance of having "a strong female physician workforce", said Jennifer Haythe, co-director of Columbia Women's Heart Centre at the Columbia University Medical Centre. In fact, more women die from coronary heart disease than breast cancer in the UK. The results? Male doctors who had more exposure to female colleagues and patients were slightly more successful in helping their female patients to survive, and the effect grew with the presence of more females. 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.

Why would women treated by male physicians be dying at a higher rate than those treated by female doctors even though they were admitted to the hospital? "It could be you have spillover between physicians", he says.

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