Misdiagnosis of heart attacks in women

Allison Fillingham

Despite 28,000 women dying of a heart attack in the UK each year, a study has shown that women had a fifty per cent higher chance than men of receiving the wrong initial diagnosis following a heart attack.

Like men, some women also often fail to recognise the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. 

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

Alison, who has been a nurse for 24 years, didn’t realise what was happening to her. 

“I had pain in my collarbone and neck but I just thought it was because I’d had a hectic few days. I went to work as normal and hoped the pain would go away. 
Two days later the pain became excruciating and spread to her jaw, so her sister made her 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 she was seen hours later that she was diagnosed as having had a heart attack.  

“Knowing how much this delayed diagnosis could have put my life at risk, I wish I’d recognised the symptoms and called the ambulance immediately. It’s so important to act fast and get the medical help you need. I'm now more aware that heart disease can affect anyone at any time - but at the time a heart attack was the last thing I thought could be happening to me.”

Study into misdiagnosis of heart attacks

The study which showed the higher misdiagnosis for women was carried out by researchers from the University of Leeds

The research used the heart attack register of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, MINAP, and found that overall, almost one-third of patients had an initial diagnosis which differed from their final diagnosis. 

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

This research found that women who had a final diagnosis of STEMI had a 59 per cent greater chance of a misdiagnosis compared with men. Women who had a final diagnosis of NSTEMI had a 41 per cent greater chance of a misdiagnosis when compared with men.

Explore our interactive infographic: What’s it like to be a woman with heart disease?

An average of 77 women die of a heart attack per day. Presently there are around 275,000 female heart attack survivors living 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.

Dr Chris Gale, Associate Professor of Cardiovascular Health Sciences and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist at the University of Leeds who worked on the study, said: “We need to work harder to shift the perception that heart attacks only affect a certain type of person. 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.”

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