Women who have a serious heart attack are treated at half the probability of being treated in an Australian hospital, and six months after they die, they die twice as often, according to a new study.
The study by heart specialists and researchers from across Australia is investigating the treatment of men and women who suffer from ST-elevation myocardial infarction (Stemi), a particularly deadly type of heart attack that involves a sudden and complete blockage of blood to the heart.
With data from 41 hospitals across the country, the researchers found that men admitted after a heart attack were twice as likely to receive the appropriate diagnostic tests and treatment as their female counterparts. Women were also less likely to be prescribed preventive medication or referred for cardiac rehabilitation.
And six months after discharge, women die twice as often or suffer from further heart problems, as the data shows. These included all causes of death, but especially heart attacks, the researchers said.
"I was pretty surprised by the results," said Professor Clara Chow of the University of Sydney, a cardiologist at Westmead Hospital and the lead author of the study. "Women with severe heart attacks are receiving treatment and it is simply unacceptable."
Chow told Guardian Australia that, although there was no conclusive cause for the discrepancy, she suspected that an "unconscious bias" in the health care system would likely be a factor.
This meant that women were less likely to believe that they were at risk of dying from a heart attack, and that health professionals would be less likely to provide adequate care.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in men and women around the world, but women who suffer from Stemi are at greater risk, according to Chow.
She said the researchers knew that previous research had also shown a discrepancy in treatment between men and women, but these studies did not control the different outcomes caused by various heart attacks.
The researchers focused only on patients who had presented with a Stemi because it was a common heart attack in which "everyone knows how he gets treated". Presentation and diagnosis are fairly consistent and patients should receive a standardized management plan, Chow said.
Given that there is no difference in the treatment protocols for men and women, research in "today's Australia has revealed that we should not have differences in results."
The study used data from 2,898 patients (2,183 men, 715 women) enrolled in 28 urban and 13 rural hospitals between 2009 and 2016. The average age of women in the study was 67, for men 61.
While the researchers believe that more studies are needed to identify the causes of the treatment's discrepancy, Chow said any unconscious bias could be addressed immediately by simply informing people about the problem.
She added that hospitals participating in such studies were usually among the most powerful, meaning they were "highly unlikely" [the problem] was underestimated ".
"There could be places where this is [discrepancy] It's even worse, "she said." That's why I'm worried. "
A study published last week by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed that in 2016, nearly 11,000 men and about 8,200 women died of coronary heart disease.
The study was published on Monday in the Medical Journal of Australia.