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Women’s heart attacks and misdiagnosis

30 August 2016

Women are 50% more likely than men to be given incorrect diagnosis following a heart attack, increasing risk of death say UK scientists.

Alison Fillingham, 49, from Bolton, had a heart attack on her way to work
Alison Fillingham, 49, from Bolton, had a heart attack on her way to work

When Alison Fillingham, a 49-year-old nurse from Bolton, became aware of a pain in her collarbone, she thought it was just because she’d had a hectic few days. She went to work as normal and hoped the pain would go away.

Alison says: “Two days later the pain was really excruciating and had spread to my jaw, so my sister made me call an ambulance. When the paramedics arrived they told me I was just having a panic attack, so I was taken to the hospital with no urgency. It was only when I was seen hours later that I was diagnosed as having had a heart attack. “

Alison’s heart attack symptoms, like those of many women, didn’t fit the stereotype of acute chest pain.

Learn to spot the subtle signs of women’s heart disease

Dr Chris Gale, Associate Professor of Cardiovascular Health Sciences and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist at the University of Leeds who worked on the study, said: “Typically, when we think of a person with a heart attack, we envisage a middle aged man who is overweight, has diabetes and smokes. This is not always the case; heart attacks affect the wider spectrum of the population – including women.”

According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), 28,000 women die from heart attacks each year in the UK, an average of 77 women per day.

There are currently around 275,000 female heart attack survivors in the UK today – many of these women will be living with heart failure as a consequence of their heart attack. The longer a heart attack is left undiagnosed and untreated, the more the heart muscle can be irreversibly damaged.

Cardiovascular disease glossary – heart jargon explained

The two main types of heart attack are STEMI and NSTEMI. STEMI occurs when there’s a total blockage of the main artery that pumps oxygenated blood around the body. NSTEMI, which is more common, is a partial blockage of one or more arteries. Both result in serious damage to the heart muscle.

This research, which was partly funded by the BHF, found that women who had a final diagnosis of STEMI had a 59% greater chance of a misdiagnosis compared with men. Women who had a final diagnosis of NSTEMI had a 41% greater chance of a misdiagnosis when compared with men.

Getting a quick diagnosis and receiving the correct treatment after a heart attack is paramount to ensure the best possible recovery. The initial diagnosis is vital as it shapes treatment in the short-term, and sometimes in the long-term. Women who were misdiagnosed had about a 70% increased risk of death after 30 days compared with those who had received a consistent diagnosis. The same was the case for men.

The UK’s leading heart research charity is urging both the public and health care professionals to be more aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, to avoid mistakes being made in diagnosis. Visit to find out more.

The research findings are published in the European Heart Journal Acute Cardiovascular Care


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