- A new study concludes that women with heart health issues get better treatment if they're seen by a female cardiologist.
- Experts say female doctors simply understand female patients better than men do.
- They say it's important to improve medical training for both male and female cardiology students.
When it comes to long-term outcomes in heart health, the gender of your cardiologist may play a role in how well things go.
That's the conclusion of a comprehensive assessment study published today, Feb. 22, in the Journal of The American College of Cardiology.
The study looked at a number of past studies in recent years and concluded that — particularly for women — cardiac patients treated by a provider of the same sex fare better long term with less future hospitalizations and complications.
The reasons run deeper than the notion that women simply relate better to other women, according to Dr. Malissa Wood, the study's lead author.
Wood, who serves as co-director of the Corrigan Women's Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, said she and her fellow researchers believe the reasons are at least three-fold.
First, she said, women really do “get” other women better than men do.
Women do understand other women
“Women may be able to understand the subtle cues that (a female patient) may give,” Wood told Healthline. “Men often do not.”
A practicing cardiologist and mother of four, Wood said her life experiences help inform her when treating female patients.
“I understand the burden of a young mom,” she said. “That encounter may take a lot of patience. To get through a long story to get to the nugget of what is going on to cause the heart issue takes time.”
But Wood feels strongly that while some of this understanding comes from life experience, it can also be taught.
Medical school training
That ability to educate brings her to what she sees as a second reason: Medical school training.
“We need to improve (medical school) education on sex and gender for both men and women,” she said.
Wood said that needs to come from both a physical and an emotional standpoint.
“The heart of the female is different than the heart of the male and in so many ways,” she explained.
Dr. Spencer Kroll, FNLA, an internal medicine specialist at The Kroll Medical Group in New Jersey, said he’s seen the impact medical training can have with patients.
As a lipid expert, Kroll works hand-in-hand with cardiologists to treat people with complicated cholesterol cases and often comes across a worrisome situation.
“I have seen many female patients who present to the doctor with significant cardiovascular risk but go undetected by cardiologists or their complaints written off as ‘noncardiac’ in nature,” he told Healthline.
His solution for now?
“It has often been my role to direct the patient to a different cardiologist who might be better suited for them,” he said.
Kroll stressed that this isn't across the board, however.
“I have seen many male doctors provide superlative treatment of female patients. The differences in cardiology outcomes, however, underscored in this study, prompts our medical community to do better,” he said.
More women doctors needed
Wood said the third impact comes from the lack of females in cardiology.
While more than 50 percent of students in medical school are now women, Wood said only about 12 percent are focusing on cardiology.
That means not just fewer females available to patients, but fewer females moving the needle forward in the field.
That, she believes, can change with a shift in how training is handled, in particular allowing for more flexibility and a more flexible schedule.
When you look at the years it takes to finish medical school and training, Wood said, adding 3 to 4 more years for cardiology can push a student into their mid-30s.
“We are beginning to make our training more amenable to men and women, not just women,” she said.
Cardiologists are pushing for students to have more flexibility and a better work-life balance, something Wood believes will benefit all.
“It would be a huge gift, since it will make for a better doctor, and that makes for better treatment,” she said.
Wood also believes that reaching deeper into the pipeline and exposing girls to the concept of becoming a specialist like a cardiologist at a young age is necessary as well.
“We need to begin in sixth grade or sooner and show (girls) how rewarding this can be, and that they can be anything they want to be,” she said.
Kroll said that this study may suggest that some practices could effectively focus on one gender or the other in the future.
“It is reasonable that we see an increase in physicians focusing and limiting their clinical practice to address the gender differences in cardiology care,” he said. “This may lead to a substantial improvement in medical care and the elimination of the observed gender differences in treatment.”
Wood said the long-term goal should be for both men and women — for the most part — to be able to treat either gender with understanding, insight, and compassion.
“Thinking about the individual patient and not just the disease is key,” she said. “With more training, more flexibility in training, and more focus on this, we can get there.”