Analyzing over 500,000 cases suggests having female physicians in the emergency room may save women’s lives.
Women make up a mere quarter of emergency doctors in the U.S., according to data from the American Medical Association. This statistic does not signal well to gender equality in medicine or young women considering the specialty — and it may have even darker implications for patients. A new study suggests female heart attack patients may be at a higher risk of mortality in the emergency room if they see a male physician rather than a female one, giving greater urgency to diversity initiatives in medicine.
Heart disease is the number-one killer of both men and women, but the latter are significantly less likely to survive heart attacks. According to 2016 American Heart Association statement, 26 percent of women will die within a year of a heart attack compared with just 19 percent of men. The gap widens with time: By five years after a heart attack almost half of women die, compared with 36 percent of men.
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 researchers analyzed a Florida Agency for Health Care Administration database containing every heart attack case from every ER in the state (excluding Veterans Affairs hospitals) between 1991 and 2010.
The researchers divided 500,000-plus cases into four categories: male doctors treating men; male doctors treating women; female doctors treating men; and female doctors treating women. “All of those are statistically indistinguishable except for male doctor–female patient,” says Brad Greenwood, an author on the study and a data scientist at the University of Minnesota. If a heart attack patient is a woman and her emergency physician is a man, he says, her risk of death suddenly rises by about 12 percent.