Thousands of women are needlessly dying from heart attacks because they receive worse care than men, a major study has found.
Poor treatment contributed to the deaths of more than 8,200 women in England and Wales over a ten-year period, the research reveals.
It found many people – doctors and patients alike – assume heart disease is a male problem, while women are more likely to put heart attack symptoms down to minor problems such as indigestion or muscle pain, and delay seeking help.
But even when they do get to hospital, doctors often misdiagnose the problem, meaning women are twice as likely as men to have their heart attack initially missed. That in itself can be fatal, because every minute treatment is delayed decreases survival chances.
Study leader Professor Chris Gale, a consultant cardiologist at Leeds University, said: ‘There is still this misperception that men have heart attacks and women do not. If you miss an opportunity to treat at the beginning, those may have a knock-on impact later.’
The study found that even when a heart attack was diagnosed, women were treated slower than men, were less likely to receive lifesaving scans and tests, and even after being discharged many were denied vital drugs or access to rehabilitation programmes.
About 69,000 women have a heart attack in Britain each year, and 119,000 men.
Professor Gale’s team found women were more than twice as likely as men to die within a month of a heart attack, but would have survived if they had received the same standard of treatment. He stressed that the figure of 8,200 deaths was a ‘conservative estimate’ because the report included patients only with complete treatment records.
The study tracked 690,000 people treated in NHS hospitals after a heart attack between 2003 and 2013.
It analysed 13 aspects of each patient’s treatment – including scans, drugs and rehabilitation – that international guidelines recommend be given after heart attacks. Strikingly, in every single area, men were more likely to receive the correct treatment and got it quicker.
The study, published in the BMJ Heart journal, showed women were 34 per cent less likely than men to receive an angiogram within 72 hours of their first symptoms. If a blockage in the heart was found, a procedure to remove the clot was not conducted for 46 minutes, compared to 44 minutes for men.
‘A two-minute delay may not seem like a lot,’ Professor Gale said, ‘but those two minutes might make a big difference when you are talking about recovery from a heart attack.’
Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, which funded the study, said: ‘We need to tackle the false perception that heart attacks are only a male health issue. This leads to inadequate care for women, with fatal consequences.’
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