Heart failure missed in thousands of women because doctors assume it's a 'man's disease'

Henry Bodkin
Women are 9 per cent less likely to be diagnosed - iStockphoto

Women are less likely than men to be diagnosed with potentially fatal heart failure because of unconscious bias among doctors, new research suggests.

A major study analysing more than 93,000 patients over four years found women were nine per cent less likely to receive a diagnosis and 13 per cent less likely to get the right prescription.

The Oxford University researchers said this is partly due to an assumption among medics that heart failure - where the heart is no longer pumps blood around the body efficiently - is man’s disease.

It is one of a number of findings indicating serious national shortcomings in the treatment of the condition, which affects one in 50 people in the UK.

As well as problems diagnosing heart failure, failures in communication between doctors means patients are deprived of the long-term treatment, the data showed.

The study found that just 17 per cent of patients diagnosed with heart failure in hospital had the diagnosis recorded by their GP within 12 months.

Meanwhile the proportion of patients given the appropriate dose of medication ranged between 29 and 42 per cent.

Nathalie Conrad, who led the research, said: “GPs should be aware that women also get heart failure.

“The difference between men and women was really significant and it needs to be addressed.”

She added: "Heart failure is a severe condition and early diagnosis is crucial for doctors to rapidly initiate life-saving medications.

Particular attention needs to be given to women and older patients to ensure they receive the treatment they need within the recommended timeframe."

In more than half - 56 per cent - of cases a heart failure diagnosis was first recorded during hospitalisation rather than a doctors' appointment, the study found.

The proportion first diagnosed in an outpatient setting dropped from 56 per cent in 2002 to 36 per cent in 2014.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “GPs understand the importance of early diagnosis and are highly trained to look out for the symptoms of heart disease, but it is notoriously difficult to diagnose in primary care as its early symptoms are often vague and can mimic more common conditions. The new study is published in journal PLOS Medicine.