Women are 50% more likely than men to be given incorrect diagnosis following a heart attack

30 August 2016        

Category: Research

Doctor taking a woman

Women have a 50 per cent higher chance than men of receiving the wrong initial diagnosis following a heart attack, according to a new study we part-funded.

The research, carried out at the University of Leeds, using the UK national heart attack register MINAP, 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, which can lead to heart failure.

This research found that women who were finally diagnosed with the more serious type of heart attack, 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.

Quick diagnosis is vital

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

The findings are published today in the European Heart Journal Acute Cardiovascular Care. The study looked at 600,000 heart attack patients over the course of nine years. 

We are 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. 

We also think more research is needed to further improve tests for diagnosing heart attacks in both men and women.

Watch our video about how our research is improving heart attack diagnosis in women.

Shifting perceptions of heart attacks

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."

Dr Mike Knapton, our Associate Medical Director, said:

"The difference between men and women is alarmingly high, but recent BHF research in Edinburgh has shown one reason why this might be. 

"The research shows that when different limits are applied to the troponin test, a routine test for a heart attack, more women receive a correct diagnosis of heart attack. Thanks to this research there is now a better test for female heart attack diagnoses. 

"However more research is urgently needed into tests that will enable earlier and more accurate diagnosis of a heart attack, particularly in women."

Find out more about how women are affected by heart disease and how you can get support.