Women treated by male physicians more likely to die after heart attack, study finds

Female patients are less likely than males to survive the years after a heart attack, even after age is accounted for — and a recent study found this is partly due to the gender of the physicians who treat them, The Atlantic reports.

Seven things to know:

1. The researchers looked at two decades of records from Florida emergency rooms, including every patient who was admitted with a heart attack between 1991 and 2010.

2. The records revealed women are more likely to die when treated by male physicians, compared with either men treated by male physicians or women treated by female physicians.

"These results suggest a reason why gender inequality in heart attack mortality persists: Most physicians are male, and male physicians appear to have trouble treating female patients," the research team says.

3. "There are inequalities in a lot of different contexts, but when someone is suffering from a heart attack, you might expect that there would be no gender differences because every physician will go in trying to save their patient's life," said study author Laura Huang, PhD. "But even here, we see a glass ceiling on life."

4. The study found female physicians outperformed their male colleagues, and their patients were more likely to live overall. Additionally, women with heart attacks were less likely to survive than men overall, the study found. 

"The penalty for being female is greater," however, when male physicians treat women, said study author Brad Greenwood, PhD. The researchers did not find a gender gap in survival when the physician is female, meaning women patients only fare worse than men when they have a male physician.

5. The survival rate for men with female physicians is 88.1 percent, compared to 86.6 percent for women with male physicians. The disparity continued after the researchers considered various factors, including the physicians' years of experience and the patients' age, ethnicity, other diseases, educational level or the hospitals where they received treatment.

6. The researchers said the differences may be driven in part by the fact that women are more comfortable explaining their symptoms to female physicians, who are more likely to link the symptoms to heart attacks. 

7. Ashish Jha, MD, who looked at hospitalized Medicare beneficiaries and found patients treated by female physicians had significantly lower mortality and readmission rates in a study published last year, said Dr. Huang and colleagues' data "are less clear than [the team] makes it out to be."

 Although it is evident that male physicians are better at taking care of men with heart attacks than women, "it's harder to tell if female physicians have no such gender disparity because their numbers are so small," Dr. Jha said. There are only half as many female physicians as male ones.

"What is convincing is that we have to do better in terms of caring for women with cardiovascular disease — all of us," Dr. Jha said. "And male physicians could learn a thing or two from our female colleagues about how to achieve better outcomes."

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