• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

'Medical Sexism': Women's heart disease symptoms often dismissed

November 2, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
While heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the U.S., statistics show they're not getting the care they need. In fact, when men have heart symptoms, 62 percent of doctors send them to a cardiologist for further testing, while less than half as many doctors refer female patients.

Some call it "medical sexism" and want to know if women are being ignored by doctors.

When Donna Marie Mackay complained of chest pain, shortness of breath and back pain, her doctor told her to take it easy.

"I felt as though I'm going to die," said Mackay.

Her doctor did not order blood work or heart tests.

"She just like blew me off, and that's a terrible feeling," said Mackay.

Three months later, Mackay went to the emergency room. She had four blocked arteries and needed open-heart surgery.

Cardiologist Dr. Adam Splaver says a symptom like shortness of breath is too often dismissed as anxiety among women.

"In training, we were taught to be on the lookout for hysterical females who come to the emergency room," said Splaver.

And some women are getting bad information. Women naturally have higher HDL, or "good" cholesterol levels, than men. They're often told that will protect them.

"Just having a high HDL may help a bit but will not completely prevent cardiovascular disease," said Splaver.

One study shows 20 percent of women with high HDL had a heart attack. Another study shows when stress is added to a list of heart symptoms, 56 percent of doctors diagnosed heart disease in men. Only 15 percent of doctors made the same diagnosis in women.

"It's there. It's real and we need to be on the lookout," said Splaver.

Another disturbing statistic: While nearly 50 percent of doctors prescribed heart medication for men, only 13 percent prescribed it for women.

Load Comments