Thought the pay gap was the worst gender disparity going on in America? Think again. According to a recent study released in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, women are more likely to die of a heart attack when treated by a male doctor than if they are treated by a female doctor.
Of course, these results don’t deliver much for the women currently affected — there’s not really a lot of free time to shop around for doctors mid-cardiac arrest. But the study’s authors are hopeful that this study could shed some light on what might be going on in hospitals regarding women and quality of care.
Previous research has shown that women are less likely overall to survive a heart attack. And even if they do survive the episode, they’re more likely to receive an inaccurate diagnosis following treatment.
In hopes of gaining some clarity on these phenomena, the researchers reviewed over two decades of emergency department records. They found that women were less likely to survive their heart attack if they were treated by a man — but the results didn’t go both ways. When treated by a woman, men and women had similar shots at survival.
“These results suggest a reason why gender inequality in heart attack mortality persists,” the study authors write. “Most physicians are male, and male physicians appear to have trouble treating female patients.”
Why might men have trouble treating women in a medical setting? Study author Brad Greenwood warns against jumping to conclusions about why these effects are happening since the study was purely observational — but he had a few hypotheses.
“Literature suggests a few different possibilities,” Greenwood explained to The Daily Meal over the phone. “Past research shows patients of similar gender and ethnic backgrounds have more successful communication.” This may result in more effective care.”
“Male doctors aren’t receiving signals from female patients they might from male patients,” Greenwood said. “Additionally, women might feel more comfortable advocating for themselves with a female physician.”
Greenwood also noted that heart attacks in general are stereotyped — when you think of a heart attack patient, you typically think of a middle-aged man with sudden chest pains. But women tend to exhibit atypical symptoms prior to a heart attack. These symptoms present themselves as nausea or other flu-like symptoms — more likely to be missed if a doctor isn’t familiar with these differences.
“Women pick up on these presentations faster than their male colleagues do,” Greenwood said. “This underscores the need for more work going forward. Are physicians not exposed during training to the idea of female heart attack patients since it’s characterized as male?” Greenwood hopes to see more research to investigate this and other related issues.
There was one piece of data that provided some hope for future improvement. Male doctors had higher rates of success in treating female patients for cardiac arrest if they’d spent more time around women — either when their workplace had more female physicians or when they’d had more past experience with female heart attack patients.
So could the overall quality of care benefit from an increase in the number of female physicians? Greenwood certainly thinks so.
“We need to increase the diversity of the physician pool such that it reflects the diversity of the patient community as well,” Greenwood said. “Then physicians and researchers can both become more aware of the challenges these different groups face.”
Luckily, there have been more female physicians employed in the U.S. in recent years. “In the U.S. we’ve seen a drastic increase in the presence of both women and ethnic minorities in hospitals,” Greenwood explained. “The difference in the physician pool now compared to 20 years ago is striking.”
That’s good news for women. Heart attacks aren’t the only situations in which women receive unequal medical care. Past research has shown that women’s reports of pain aren’t regarded as seriously as men’s. Additionally, studies reveal that women wait an average of 16 minutes longer to receive emergency medical care for abdominal pain. If women don’t feel they’re being taken seriously by their care providers, they might not be as eager to share their “smaller” symptoms — some of which could be serious.