After taking factors such as age, race and medical history into account, they found all patients had a better chance of surviving a heart attack if they were treated by a female doctor, but the difference in outcomes was biggest in women. 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.
The solution may be simply to add more female doctors in emergency departments, researchers argued.
The researchers analyzed a Florida Agency for Health Care Administration database containing every heart attack case from every ER in the state (excluding Veterans Affairs hospitals) between 1991 and 2010.
The results from more than 580,000 patients reveals that overall, 11.9% of heart attack patients died while in hospital.
Matching female doctors to female patients "reduced the probability of death by 5.4 per cent, relative to this baseline", it said. 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.
A female patient is also more likely to survive if a male doctor has recently treated more female patients, who may have had similar symptoms. Although mortality rates for female patients treated by male physicians decrease as the male physician treats more female patients, this decrease may come at the expense of earlier female patients. "There have definitely been several studies that have shown that women are slower to be diagnosed, and that might be explained by the fact that women are more likely to have "atypical' symptoms", O'Donoghue notes".
Female patients treated by male doctors were about 1.5 percentage points less likely to survive a heart attack than male patients in the care of female doctors.
The authors say their work calls on the importance of having a greater representation of female doctors in the medical field. This could help them to pick up on heart attacks, even if women have more atypical symptoms.
The study did find two factors that seemed to "protect" patients from a poorer prognosis when treated by a male doctor. That could mean that "female patients are more comfortable advocating for themselves with a female physician" or that "male physicians aren't getting all the cues they need to make the diagnosis" when dealing with female patients, he said. "It could be you have spillover between physicians", he says.
One problem is that most doctors are male, so matching female doctors to female patients just isn't possible much of the time.
Women suffering from a heart attack are more likely to wait before seeking medical treatment and are less likely to be taken to a properly-equipped hospital, making them almost twice as likely (12 percent) to die in the hospital than men. "I would hope that in reading this leaders in emergency medicine-whether directors or department chairs-would consider that we are an asset beyond being a diverse workforce".