Women are half as likely as men to receive treatment for a heart attack – even after it has been diagnosed, research shows.
Experts warned that “unconscious bias” means doctors are far less likely to think that female patients are suitable for interventions which can save lives.
It follows evidence that 8,000 women have died needlessly from heart attacks in the last decade because they have not received the same standards of care as men.
Some of the death toll was blamed on a failure to diagnose cases in women, with medics too often assuming symptoms signified a less serious ailment.
But the new study by Edinburgh University found that even when women received a diagnosis, they were half as likely as men to be put on any of the main treatments available.
Even when female diagnosis rates were boosted by 42 per cent – thanks to the use of more accurate tests – lack of treatment meant there was no fall in deaths or repeat attacks among women.
The research involved 48,000 men and women who arrived at 10 Accident and Emergency hospitals in Scotland suffering from chest pain.
All were given a new type of test, increasingly used by the NHS, as it is better at identifying heart attacks, especially in women.
Using the high sensitivity troponin blood test with specific gender thresholds increased the number of women identified as suffering a heart attack by 42 per cent.
This meant a similar proportion of men and women were found to be suffering heart attack or injury – around one in five of all those who came to A&E with chest pains.
But the researchers found that, despite the improvement in diagnosis, women were about half as likely as men to receive recommended heart attack treatments.
Just 15 per cent were fitted with a stent, compared with 34 per cent of men, with 26 per cent put on dual antiplatelet therapy, along with 43 per cent of men. Just 16 per cent of female patients were prescribed preventative treatments such as statins, along with 26 per cent of men.
And the improved rates of diagnosis did not lead to any decrease in the number of women who experienced another heart attack, or died from cardiovascular disease within a year.
The new research was funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
The charity said that a misperception that a heart attack is a man’s disease, and “unconscious biases” in the delivery of healthcare, are leading to delayed treatment and poorer survival chances for women who suffer heart attacks.
Women tend to be older when they suffer heart attacks, which could explain some of the cases, if doctors thought they were too frail to cope with treatment. But the study found significant differences even when patients in the same age group were compared.
Dr Ken Lee, BHF Clinical Research Fellow and study author at the University of Edinburgh, said action was needed to ensure female patients got fair treatment.
He said: “The way test results and patient history are interpreted by healthcare professionals can be subjective, and unconscious biases may influence the diagnosis. This may partly explain why, even when rates of diagnosis are increased, women are still at a disadvantage when it comes to the treatments they receive following a heart attack.”
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation and Cardiologist, said: “It’s extremely promising that bespoke blood tests for men and women could lead to better diagnosis of heart attacks. But this progress in diagnosis needs to translate in to better treatment and improved heart attack survival chances for women. We now need to dig deep into the complex reasons behind women having reduced access to investigations and treatment.
“It’s essential that health care professionals are aware of the inequalities in heart care for women, and that everyone can spot the symptoms of a heart attack. With more research, and greater awareness, we can close this heart attack gender gap.”