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Women more likely to survive heart attacks when treated by female doctors

The study examined over 580,000 patient records collected over a 20-year period and found women were more likely to survive a heart attack when treated by a female doctor than a male doctor.
Maria Fabrizio | NPR

Doctors have long known that women in the U.S. have a higher risk of dying from heart attacks than men.

The reasons driving this gender gap in survival, however, have perplexed researchers. A study led in part by Washington University suggests the gender of the attending doctor may play a role. Women were more likely to survive a heart attack when treated by a female doctor than a male doctor.

The researchers examined more than 580,000 records from every patient admitted to Florida emergency rooms for a heart attack between 1991 and 2010.

They found that female ER doctors performed better overall than their male colleagues, even after controlling for patient age, race and health conditions.

About 13.3 percent of women and 12.6 percent of men who saw a male doctor died from a heart attack. In comparison, 12 percent of women and 11.8 percent of men who saw a female doctor died.

That works out to a 0.7 percent gender gap in survival for male doctors versus a 0.2 percent gap for female doctors.

Those differences may not sound like much, but they can snowball rapidly when considering the total number of heart attack patients each year, said study co-author Seth Carnahan.

“If male doctors had the same mortality rates for their patients that female doctors do, there’d be about 100 fewer deaths of female patients in the state of Florida per year,” said Carnahan, professor in Washington University’s Olin Business School.

An underlying reason that may contribute to gender disparities in survival is the fact that men and women tend to display different heart attack symptoms.

According to the American Medical Association women tend not to display symptoms we typically associate with heart attacks in men, such as chest pain. Instead, women often display a range of general symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness and fatigue.

“[Women] are slower to get to the emergency room and when they get there, they’re slower to be diagnosed with a heart attack,” Carnahan said.

Though women’s heart attack symptoms can make them harder to diagnose, the study suggests that male doctors are learning to recognize the signs.

Male physicians tended to perform better if they had treated a larger number of female patients in the past – particularly if they have worked in emergency rooms with more female colleagues.

“It could be that there’s knowledge spillover happening,” Carnahan said. “Maybe female doctors are more likely to put in policies and practices that cue their colleagues to these gender differences in heart attack symptom presentation.”

Though the study suggests male physicians tend to have trouble treating female heart attack patients, Carnahan said the team is not recommending that patients try to match their gender to that of their doctor.

“The main takeaway is you have to really be an advocate for yourself in the emergency room,” said Carnahan. “Regardless of the doctor’s gender, you have to be sure your concerns are being taken seriously.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award.