Female heart attack patients fare better if treated by a woman

A doctor holds her stethoscope in an outpatients ward

Female heart attack patients treated by female doctors were between two and three times likelier to survive than female patients treated by male doctors, according to a study covering nearly two decades of hospitalizations in Florida. Therefore, the male doctors might assume the heart attack symptoms experienced by female patients is similar to that of male patients.

In reviewing the conditions that most favored female patients, the team found that female survival rates rose as the percentage of female doctors in the ER rose - particularly if the treating physician was male.

The researchers studied emergency department admissions for heart attacks in the U.S. state of Florida between the years 1991 and 2010.

For women older than 65, heart attacks are the leading cause of death and account for more than half of all heart attacks. The records not only detailed the patients' ultimate fates, but also provided the names of their attending doctors, which the researchers used to figure out their gender. Under the care of male doctors, 13.3 percent of women died versus 12.6 percent of men - a difference roughly three times greater.

By another way of looking at the data, "female patients treated by male physicians were 1.52 per cent less likely to survive than male patients treated by female physicians". 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.

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The researchers trawled through patient data from Florida hospitals from 1991 to 2010, measuring factors such as age, race and medical history.The gender survival difference was highest under male physicians.

These conclusions are central to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled "Patient-Physician Gender Concordance and Increased Mortality Among Female Heart Attack Patients", co-authored with Brad Greenwood at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Harvard University's Laura Huang.

The reason has eluded researchers for years, but the authors of the new study point to the disparity in male and female representation in emergency doctors as a potential source of answers. But, according to a new study, not if they're treated by female doctors.

That doesn't mean we can only be healthy if our doctor looks just like us. 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. Female doctors are more likely to speak with their patients longer and provide more evidence-based care than their male colleagues, Tsugawa says. In addition, the more female patients a male doctor had previously treated for heart attacks, the better the chances of survival a woman had.

These findings represent a "fundamental catch-22 for medical providers and female patients", wrote the authors.

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