Women are less likely to die of a heart attack if they are in the care of a woman doctor, according to a study into hundreds of thousands of cases.
The research revealed female patients were about 0.7 percent more likely to die if they were treated by a male doctor than by a female.
"This number seems small," said study co-author Seth Carnahan at Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis. "But if the survival rate among the female heart-attack patients treated by male doctor was the same as the survival rate among female heart-attack patients treated by female doctors, about 1,500 fewer of the female heart-attack patients in our sample would have passed away," he told Newsweek.
The researchers investigated over 582,000 cases which occurred at Florida hospitals between 1991 and 2010. They obtained information including patients' age, race, medical history and the quality of the hospital they'd visited. The resulting study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
When patients were treated by women physicians, 11.8 percent of men died, versus about 12 percent of women. But when patients were treated by men, 12.6 percent of men died compared to 13.3 percent of women: a tripling in the gap of survival.
The researchers also found that survival rates climbed when women were treated by male doctors who had more female colleagues in the ER, though not to the same level.
"We are not sure why female doctors seem to be more successful than their male counterparts in treating female patients," said Carnahan. "We can speculate about this, but more work is needed to make a clear statement."
The results tie in with the Yentl syndrome theory, which is that because most research is centered around male subjects, women receive the same heart attack care as men do, even though their symptoms can be different.
So, should women avoid being treated by male doctors? No, stressed Carnahan.
"It is important to emphasize that our study is showing average outcomes," he explained. "There is a wide distribution: Some male doctors will be better than some female doctors, in terms of their outcomes for female patients."
Carnahan also highlighted the importance of raising awareness that heart attack symptoms were different for women than men. "Recognizing that a heart attack might be occurring and getting to the ER as quickly as possible should make a bigger difference than the gender of your physician," he said.
Policymakers, meanwhile, could help by funding research to uncover sex differences in medical conditions and treatment, said Carnahan.
Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the charity the British Heart Foundation who was not involved in the study, said the stereotypical heart-attack patient was a middle-aged man with a poor lifestyle. "But the reality is very different, with heart attacks affecting a large spectrum of the population, including thousands of seemingly healthy women, every year," she said.
"Our research has already shown a discrepancy in the treatment given to men and women suffering from heart attacks, and misconceptions about the type of people who suffer heart attacks may be a contributing factor."