Heart disease is the number one killer of women and men in the US, and symptoms of heart attack can show up differently in men and women.
Previous research has found better outcomes among hospitalized Medicare patients treated by women, but the underlying reasons remain murky at best. Women are less likely to survive in the years following a heart attack and it could be because of how they are treated. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with a heart condition in their lifetime than women, but diagnosed women are less likely to survive. The records not only detailed the patients' ultimate fates, but also provided the names of their attending doctors, which the researchers used to figure out their gender. They showed that women are more likely to die when treated by male doctors, compared to either men treated by male doctors or women treated by female doctors.
"Especially in emergency medicine, where physicians are tasked with saving peoples' lives, it is assumed that physicians should be working to save everyone's lives equally", Laura Huang, professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study authors, told ABC News.
Second, women tend to delay seeking treatment (perhaps because they think they can't possibly be having a heart attack).
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Another possible factor could be that female heart attack patients are entering hospitals with gender-specific symptoms that are more readily recognized by female physicians, Greenwood added. Reuters frames it this way: If 1,000 women went to the ER with a heart attack, 15 more would die if treated by a man. Survival rates also increased if there were many female physicians in the ER, suggesting that female doctors assist their male colleagues in diagnosis, per the Guardian.
As the study is observational, it does not provide any strong answer to why male doctors flag behind.
That doesn't mean we can only be healthy if our doctor looks just like us. 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 because heart attacks come about suddenly, patients are rarely able to choose their doctor - or his or her gender - when entering an emergency department.
This is backed by one of the findings which showed that, as a male physician treats more women, his mortality rate after treatment decreases. They extrapolated their findings a bit, and concluded that some 32,000 lives would be saved if male physicians could achieve the same outcomes as female physicians every year. "And male physicians could learn a thing or two from our female colleagues about how to achieve better outcomes". "A male physician sees a female physician treat a female patient successfully, and sees potential cues".