Recently it has come to public attention that women are indeed treated differently in the medical environment than men. Men rarely hear “it’s all in your head” and are usually taken much more seriously. But research is showing that this is becoming a serious problem and it is costing lives.
Recently I read a news story in a print publication about a woman who had gone to the emergency room complaining of chest pain. She was looked over briefly, no EKG was ever taken, and it was chalked up to a panic attack. It is true that panic attacks often manifest themselves this way, but assumptions are dangerous. Today on MSNBC, it was reported, just like the story I had read, that a woman went to the ER complaining of chest pain and the nurse started appropriate medications for a heart attack, on the attending physician’s orders. Her shift ended and she left, but when she returned for her next shift, she discovered that the next doctors had discontinued the medications with the instructions for the patient to go home. They diagnosed her with a panic attack. The woman returned to the ER with permanent heart damage due to a heart attack that she had suffered. A heart attack that they had missed.
Part of the problem is that heart disease in young women is not something that has been recognized until recently. It was considered a problem for men or for older women, at best. And to complicate the problem, the symptoms have great gender differences. For men we know the symptoms: crushing chest pain, left arm pain, jaw pain, clamminess and a bluish-grey color to the skin. But what are the symptoms for women? It can be those but often women’s heart attack symptoms follow a different pattern. For women the symptoms are more likely to be back pain, indigestion, shortness of breath and nausea/vomiting rather than chest pain. Dizziness and fatigue that won’t go away is another warning sign. Heart disease can be sending out symptoms and not only are the women ignoring them, but the doctors are as well.
MSNBC reports of this happening with a 20 year old woman who reported to the hospital with the above symptoms. Apparently the thought of a heart attack never occurred to the doctors and this woman died within 48 hours. Most likely, had the proper testing been done, this death could have been avoided. But when a heart attack strikes a young woman, her chances are high that she will have severe damage or die. In fact, twice as many women die of a first heart attack than men. The concern within the medical community is that misdiagnoses are happening due to gender differences in symptoms.