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Are Doctors More Likely to Misdiagnose Heart Attacks in Female Patients?

More than 700,000 Americans suffer heart attacks every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An astounding 1 in 50 are misdiagnosed, often resulting in patients being sent home from the emergency room.

For female patients, the risk is particularly high because the symptoms of a heart attack are much different in women. In many cases, they mirror much more benign ailments, such as the flu or anxiety. Common complaints include shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

As explained by Dr. David A. Meyerson, MD, JD, Director of Cardiology Consultation Services, Johns Hopkins, “with regard to heart attack and heart disease women do present differently from men … Men will often feel that terrible essential chest pain or pressure, with pressure and pain going through to the jaw, perhaps to the back, perhaps to the left arm, shortness of breath, dizziness, a whole constellation of things. Women sometimes have less warning. Their symptoms are not quite as dramatic…[They] may complain about profound fatigue or weakness… chest pressure…or shortness of breath.”

As confirmed by recent studies, the difference in symptoms is directly tied to delays in treatment. For instance, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that male patients received faster access to electrocardiograms (ECGs) to check heart rhythms and fibrinolysis to prevent blood clots than their female counterparts. As Business Insider reports, it took 15 minutes and 28 minutes, respectively, for men to be given ECGs or fibrinolysis from the time they arrived at the ER. By comparison, women waited 21 minutes and 36 minutes.

As San Diego medical malpractice lawyers, the high rates of misdiagnosis are concerning, particularly given that early intervention can prevent or limit damage to the heart muscle and frequently save the patient’s life.