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Why Do Doctors Misdiagnose Women’s Heart Attacks?

Published on Jul 22, 2022 at 6:43 pm in Medical Malpractice.

woman heart attack

If you ask most people what symptoms they associate with heart conditions, they might tell you chest pain, high blood pressure, or labored breathing. While those may be some signs that a heart attack is imminent, those three manifestations that your body is in distress are far from a comprehensive listing of symptoms someone may experience if they have cardiovascular disease or if a cardiac arrest is about to set in. 

Heart disease is one of the most common yet also misdiagnosed conditions women may develop. Cardiovascular disease, a precursor to a heart attack, trumps cancer, diabetes, and respiratory illness as the leading killer of United States women. This chronic illness claims approximately 333,000 lives annually.

One detail that few Americans realize is that females who experience heart attacks are significantly less likely to survive this health care emergency compared with their male counterparts. Medical analysts suggest that women’s poor cardiac arrest survival rates are attributable to doctors’ misdiagnoses. Why do doctors struggle to get women’s heart attack diagnoses right?

Reasons Doctors Fail to Diagnose Women’s Heart Attacks

Medical researchers have long attempted to make sense of why doctors misdiagnose women’s cardiovascular disease and cardiac arrest. They’ve decided that it often has to do with women not presenting with the same symptoms as men. 

Researchers have found that men suffering from cardiac arrest often present with “textbook” symptoms of cardiovascular distress, such as pain or tingling in the left arm or chest pressure. Women, on the other hand, often come to the emergency room (ER) complaining of the following health concerns:

  • Nausea
  • Acid reflux 
  • Jaw pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness

While some women may also experience left arm discomfort and chest pain, it’s far less common in females suffering from heart disease or cardiac arrest than it is for men. 

Conditions That Doctors Confuse Women’s Heart Attacks For

Many of the cardiac arrest symptoms that women experience are often written off by doctors as the following far less deadly medical conditions:

  • The flu
  • A panic attack
  • Angina
  • Food poisoning
  • Acid reflux or heartburn

It’s not uncommon for doctors to send patients home with a recommendation for them to destress, rest, hydrate, and take painkillers because these medical professionals don’t consider these symptoms to indicate anything serious—and definitely not an impending heart attack. 

How Can Doctors Do a Better Job of Diagnosing Women’s Heart Attacks?

Researchers have found that women’s misdiagnoses could be significantly reduced if doctors were more proactive in ordering additional testing or imaging when female patients present with the heart attack symptoms described above. Physicians instead tend to settle on a less potentially fatal diagnosis with overlapping symptomology with cardiac arrest.

There is one glimmer of hope, though. One report published in 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences captured how women’s chances of being diagnosed correctly as having a heart attack are three times higher when they see a female doctor. So, although it may be seen as rude, you may benefit from asking to see a female doctor if you’re concerned that you’re experiencing early-stage cardiac arrest. It may save you from being sent home with painkillers to die a preventable death.

Are Some Women More Vulnerable to Suffer Heart Attacks Than Others?

While doctors can benefit from performing blood testing and imaging studies when you present with complaints that align with female heart attack symptoms, they may additionally benefit from weighing your presentation, demographics, and medical history.

It’s well-established in medical literature that women belonging to the following groups have a higher risk of suffering a heart attack than others:

  • Ones who live a relatively sedentary life
  • Those who smoke cigarettes
  • Ones who drink alcohol
  • Sleep apnea sufferers
  • Those who are overweight or obese
  • Ones who are post-menopausal
  • Those who have previously received high blood pressure or cholesterol diagnoses
  • Ones who have diabetes

Women belonging to certain minority groups, ones with certain heart defects, or ones who have family histories of cardiovascular conditions may also be at a higher risk for cardiac arrest than others. 

What Constitutes a Misdiagnosis?

A misdiagnosis is a situation where a doctor reaches the wrong conclusion about your condition. 

Many medical conditions have overlapping symptoms, so it may seem like an honest mistake if a physician assigns a patient the wrong diagnosis. The problem is that doctors do not always perform the proper blood tests, x-rays, CT-scans, and other imaging as they are trained to rule in or out certain conditions when there’s any uncertainty. Instead, they may diagnose a condition after doing a simple physical exam. This gives them a large margin for error. 

How Might a Lawyer Help If a Doctor Misdiagnosed You?

A situation in which doctors fail to perform additional testing to confirm your suspected diagnosis may constitute negligence. 

Physicians are expected to provide a certain standard of care when treating patients. If an adverse event occurs, like a decline in a patient’s health or death, the victim or their surviving loved ones may pursue a medical malpractice claim or lawsuit. 

Attorneys will focus their attention on determining if the physician breached their standard of care. Thus, they will try and determine if a similarly skilled, competent medical professional in the same area with a similar background would have handled the situation in the same way that your doctor did. 

Negligence is deemed to have occurred when differences exist between how your physician handled your diagnosis and treatment, and another one would have. 

We count on physicians to do their best to diagnose us when we present with a medical ailment. Kentucky law affords patients and their families the right to hold their Lexington doctors liable for any unnecessary harm or losses that they suffered due to negligence. Let a lawyer from our office provide you with a free case evaluation to see if you have a valid claim and advise you of the next steps you might want to take.

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