According to their findings in "Patient-Physician Gender Concordance and Increased Mortality Among Female Heart Attack Patients", of more than 500,000 heart attack patients admitted to hospital emergency departments in Florida between 1991 and 2010, female patients treated by male physicians were less likely to survive than patients of either gender treated by female physicians or male patients treated by male physicians.
Greenwood suspects the excess deaths are due to delays in treatment because the male doctors took longer to diagnose the heart attack.
During the almost two-decade study timeframe, roughly 1.3 million heart attacks occurred among Florida's 20 million residents. The gap widens with time: By five years after a heart attack nearly half of women die, compared with 36 percent of men.
By another way of looking at the data, "female patients treated by male physicians were 1.52 per cent less likely to survive than male patients treated by female physicians".
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"You have highly trained experts with life or death on the line, and yet the gender match between the physician and the patient seems to matter a great deal", said Carnahan, one of a handful of new faculty at the Olin Business School. Heart attacks look different in women than in men: Rather than the classic gripping chest pains, they can also be presaged by indigestion, or discomfort in the arms, neck, jaw, stomach, and back.
The reason has eluded researchers for years, but the authors of the new study point to the disparity in male and female representation in emergency doctors as a potential source of answers.
The figures suggest a woman would have 5.4 per cent less chance of dying from a heart attack if treated by a doctor of the same sex.
Emergency doctors and cardiologists, however, are wary of jumping to conclusions just yet. "[Or] it could be because women are more likely to present atypically and female physicians are better at picking up cues than their male colleagues".
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Additionally, it found that even when a male physician successfully treated a female heart attack victim, it was because there was an increased percentage of female physicians based in that emergency department.
'One is that women tend to be more conscientious as doctors and have more social intelligence, so could pick up on signs of a heart attack.
Also, given the gender bias in outcomes, hospital administrators may also want to narrow the pay gap between male and female doctors.
"It's important to not get caught up in the idea that women are better doctors", said Dr. Klea Bertakis, a physician and researcher at the University of California, Davis, who studies gender dynamics in health care.
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"The key takeaway is that male physicians appear to have trouble treating female patients", Greenwood said. The results? Male doctors who had more exposure to female colleagues and patients were slightly more successful in helping their female patients to survive, and the effect grew with the presence of more females.