Gender of medics vital in surviving a coronary

A doctor holds her stethoscope in an outpatients ward

Should women request physicians of the same gender?

Women who have a heart attack are more likely to survive if they are treated by a female doctor in hospital, a major USA study suggests.

The reason why, the study's authors suggest: Myths about heart disease as a "male" condition may color how male doctors treat women facing the top cause of death in the United States for men and women.

The US study of almost 582,000 heart attack victims was carried out by the University of Minnesota. In this case, 11.8pc of men died compared with 12pc of women.

Despite the fact that, according to the British Heart Foundation, heart disease kills more than twice as many women as breast cancer, the medical research community historically looked at heart attacks as a "male" disease.

Female heart attack patients treated by male doctors have a worse chance of survival than those treated by female doctors, a study suggests. That gender disparity grew to 0.7% for patients in the care of male doctors: 13.3% of women died compared to 12.6% of men. Using data on 582,000 heart attack patients admitted to Florida emergency rooms from 1991 to 2010, researchers found that women treated by male doctors were 1.5% less likely to survive than males treated by female doctors.

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The study did find two factors that seemed to "protect" patients from a poorer prognosis when treated by a male doctor.

For women suffering from the symptoms of a heart attack, a team of researchers from Harvard Business School has a very simple recommendation that could save lives: request a woman physician.

Matching female doctors to female patients "reduced the probability of death by 5.4 per cent, relative to this baseline", it said. Or there could be a bias that favors men in the medical literature (in which heart attacks are better understood when they happen in men), leading to misdiagnoses in women. "And male physicians could learn a thing or two from our female colleagues about how to achieve better outcomes".

"It's important to not get caught up in the idea that women are better doctors", said Dr. Klea Bertakis, a physician and researcher at the University of California, Davis, who studies gender dynamics in health care. The results? Male doctors who had more exposure to female colleagues and patients were slightly more successful in helping their female patients to survive, and the effect grew with the presence of more females. Similarly, they might wrongly assume that women's heart attacks are just like men's, even though women can sometimes have different symptoms.

The gender survival difference was highest under male physicians. "It could be you have spillover between physicians", he says.

"Finally", they write, "interesting opportunities for research exist in an examination of the role played by residents, nurses, and other physicians who may be present or provide information to the supervising physician...future work that considers these supporting figures would advance our understanding of how coordination between [all] healthcare providers might influence the relationship between physician-patient gender concordance and patient survival".

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