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Women Are More Likely to Survive a Heart Attack If Their Doctor Is Female

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Photo: Colin Anderson / Getty Images

A couple years ago, there was a lot of buzz about research that showed that female doctors are better than male docs. Specifically, a study found that patients who were treated by female doctors had lower mortality and readmission rates. Can't argue with that.

That's why new research out of Harvard Business School isn't totally surprising. But it's still pretty fascinating and may even have implications for how doctors are educated in the future, especially with regard to heart disease.

In a study set to be published next week, researchers looked at more than 500,000 heart attack patients in Florida between the years 1991 and 2010. They found that female patients treated by male physicians were less likely to survive compared with patients of either gender treated by female physicians or male patients treated by male physicians. Yikes.

What's more, female survival improved based on how many female doctors were employed in the hospital's emergency department. In other words, the more female doctors a hospital had in their emergency room, the better the outcomes were for female heart attack patients. Pretty crazy, right?

While the study didn't define an exact cause for this phenomenon, researchers do take some guesses based on well-known facts about heart disease in women and how it's treated. (BTW, here are five things you probably don't know about women's heart health.)

First, heart disease is often thought of as a "male" condition. So if a doctor is affected by that notion, he might not take complaints from female patients as seriously—especially since heart attack symptoms in women can be different from those in men. And though data shows that male doctors tend to improve in their treatment of female heart patients over time, the study points out that this waiting game could be a deadly one.

Second, women tend to delay seeking treatment (perhaps because they think they can't possibly be having a heart attack). That might mean that male doctors don't recognize the symptoms for what they are until it's too late.

So what does a heart attack feel like for a woman? Well, the signs can be more subtle than in men, including uncomfortable chest pressure, toothache, nausea, and pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach. (Related: I'm a Young, Fit Spin Instructor—and Nearly Died of a Heart Attack)

What's the takeaway here? Well, first, if you find yourself in need of treatment for heart issues and you're a woman, you may want to seek out a female doctor—or at least head to an ER that has plenty of women on staff. But for now, hopefully, calling out this mortality discrepancy between male and female physicians treating heart attacks will shed light on the need for better education around women's heart health—period.

 

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