WATCH (above): New research shows men and women are treated differently for heart problems, putting many women at risk. Tanya Beja explains.
If you’re rushed to hospital with a heart attack, your odds of getting treated quickly may depend on your sex: a new Canadian study suggests that men receive faster care than women when it comes to heart attacks.
Men seem to get access to procedures like receiving an electrocardiogram or getting medicine to unblock clogged arteries within the recommended time frame after arriving at the emergency room while women wait longer, a Quebec study warns. Women were also less likely to receive these invasive treatments overall.
But gender, not sex, may be at play in understanding this disparity, Canadian researchers from McGill University say. If men had “typically feminine” traits, they’d lower their odds of treatment just like their female counterparts.
“Men and women need to be assertive when expressing their needs, and they need to be precise and concise when reporting their symptoms,” McGill’s Dr. Roxanne Pelletier, who led the study, told Global News.
“It is possible that patients with more typically female characteristics, such as being tender or shy, give the appearance that they are too fragile or weak to support invasive procedures,” Pelletier told Global News.
Pelletier studied 1,123 patients from across 26 centres in Canada, the United States and Switzerland. Quebec, Vancouver and Calgary researchers were involved in the study.
Her study was published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Even with advances in heart disease treatment, notable differences between sex still exist — women have higher death risk for heart attacks, especially in younger adults. Pelletier said she wanted to figure out why.
Gender stereotypes in her study included social roles like child care, doing chores around the house, being sensitive to others, or being “tender” or “gentle.”
Across the board, women ranked higher in these characteristics.
That was linked to being less likely than men to receive an electrocardiogram within the recommended 10 minutes of arriving in hospital and receiving fibrinolysis — which unblocks arteries — within the recommended 30 minutes.
But doctors aren’t sexist, Pelletier says. There are plenty of potential reasons why women aren’t getting the same care.
For starters, women tend to have more health problems related to their heart disease than men — diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity. It could be taking longer for triage nurses to assess these patients and their medical history.
Women also experience heart attacks differently than men. A distinct difference is that they’re less likely to report chest pain — a key symptom of a heart attack. Pelletier says that this may cause nurses to initially dismiss a heart attack.
(In this case, only younger heart attack patients were studied, and sex was irrelevant: both men and women reported chest pain.)
Women also may not be explaining their symptoms.
“Patients who appear fragile and weak, when compared with those with strong personality and leadership, may be less likely to convince themselves that they require intervention,” Pelletier said.
But she said she wants heart attack patients — male or female — to know that they need to report their symptoms and express their needs clearly. It could be a matter of life or death.
In this case, patients turning up in the emergency room with a severe heart attack and who don’t receive an electrocardiogram could have a four-fold higher risk of having another heart attack or dying within the following months.
Doctors and front-line emergency workers also shouldn’t rule out a heart attack.
“Be aware of the factors influencing access to care and keep in mind that when a patient presents with cardiac-like symptoms, even though they are young or they are depressed, reserved or anxious, they need to be careful not to dismiss a cardiac event in these patients,” Pelletier said.