A woman in Australia who has a heart attack is less likely than a man to receive the same life-saving treatment, be given advice on how to manage their heart health or be referred to and attend cardiac rehabilitation.
A survey of more than 400 heart attack survivors by the Heart Foundation has found that women were less likely than men to receive advice on how to control or reduce their risk factors for heart disease (76 per cent vs 85 per cent) or be referred to and attend cardiac rehabilitation after leaving hospital (39 per cent vs 51 per cent).
Heart Foundation Director of Health Strategy, Julie Anne Mitchell, said women face a very real challenge to equality when it comes to their heart health.
“At every step of the patient journey from prevention, to diagnosis, treatment and ongoing care, women often fare far worse than men,” Ms Mitchell said.
“Women are less likely to have heart health checks, are slower to respond to the warning signs of a heart attack and even when they present to hospital, they are less likely to receive the same life-saving treatments as men.
“For example, women are significantly less likely than men to have procedures to restore blood flow to the heart, less likely to have heart x-rays known as angiograms and less likely to have bypass surgery.”
This lack of advice and intervention contributed to more female heart attack survivors being less satisfied with the healthcare they received (44 per cent vs 57 per cent) and more likely to have their mental health affected because of their heart attack (80 per cent vs. 69 per cent). Female heart attack survivors were also less likely than males to say their healthcare needs were met during Covid-19 (52 per cent vs 64 per cent).
Ms Mitchell says the reasons for this gender gap are complex but lack of awareness, physical and hormonal differences in women, and unconscious bias in clinical decision-making are all part of the picture.
“Challenging women’s own views about heart disease is an essential first step in improving their care and their outcomes,” she said.
“But, we also encourage women to challenge the system if they believe their heart health concerns are not being heard. Too often women downplay their symptoms or don’t push for attention.
“More needs to be done to ensure women know heart disease is personally relevant and that the health system is there to support them.”
To this end the Heart Foundation is calling on the Federal Government to back a national awareness campaign in the May budget to drive home the risks of heart disease and stroke among women and the steps they can take to lower their risk.
“The fact is that heart disease is not just a male problem. Twenty women die of heart disease each day.
“Our challenge is to ensure every woman knows the warning signs of a heart attack and knows to call Triple Zero (000) if they think something is wrong.
“Chest pain is a common warning sign, but women are more likely to experience heart attack warning signs such as nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, cold sweats, pain or discomfort in the jaw, hands, arms or back. These are symptoms that can be mistaken for conditions such as the flu, overexertion or just feeling run down rather than a life-threatening heart attack.
“We also encourage Australian women aged 45 years and over, and Indigenous women aged from 30 years, to see their GP for a Heart Health Check to find out their risk of a heart attack or stroke in the next five years.
“Heart disease places a heavy burden on our community but if we can close the gap in how men and women are treated, we can make significant gains for Australian women’s heart health.”
Heart disease is a leading cause of death among Australian women.
- The most common risk factors affecting women are high cholesterol, being overweight and physical inactivity.
- Heart disease can occur at any age, but the risk increases significantly around menopause.
- Research has shown that just over half of women who have a heart attack experienced chest pain. However, for many others, only non-chest symptoms like breathlessness, nausea and arm or jaw pain.
For heart health information and support, call the Heart Foundation Helpline on 13 11 12.