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Heart Biases That Can Kill

Millions of Americans experience heart attack symptoms each year. So why do some get better treatment than others?
WebMD Feature

If you're having one of the 700,000 heart attacks that occur each year in the U.S. -- or even symptoms suggesting that possibility -- it helps to be rich, white, and male.

Studies indicate that it's those patients who get faster and better care in emergency and follow-up treatment for heart attack than do people with less money, darker skin, or a different sex -- even when symptoms or medical insurance are the same.

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While ethnic, socioeconomic, and sex disparities have been well documented across a range of conditions -- from routine prostate screenings to potentially lifesaving lung cancer surgery -- these biases are especially noticeable and troubling when dealing with heart attack, the nation's leading cause of death.

Research shows that blacks and other minorities, women, the poor, and the elderly consistently have to wait longer to get hospital emergency room treatment -- a place where minutes count. Afterward, they are offered therapies less often, including aspirin -- an inexpensive drug proven to prevent a second attack.

Even their complaints and descriptions of pain from heart attacks and stroke symptoms are more likely to be ignored by doctors, say researchers.

Who's to Blame?

"Some of it is due to cultural reasons," says cardiologist Charles L. Curry, MD, professor of medicine emeritus at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and a member of the National Heart Attack Alert Program. "African Americans and other minorities don't seek care as often as whites, and they don't seek it as early. They may be more likely to believe that Mother Nature will take care of problems or try nontraditional forms of medicine."

Another reason: Those getting the best treatment -- wealthier white men -- typically have a better handle on the extent of their problem.

"It's pretty clear from numerous studies that ethnic minority groups in the U.S. have less knowledge of heart attack symptoms, and that leads to their own delays in getting proper treatment," says David Goff, MD, of Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who led several of those studies.

Different Symptoms?

In one study, Goff found that white men are more likely to have a higher number of correct symptoms of heart attack and that they respond more quickly. "That may be because it's also clear from the literature that women and minorities either experience symptoms somewhat differently, or they describe them differently to their doctors than white men," Goff tells WebMD.

For instance, when women have a heart attack, they often complain of back pain, not chest pain. "So physicians may not clue into heart disease as quickly with a woman as when men come in complaining of chest pain," he says.

Minorities have also been found to downplay their pain as compared with whites. "You get a black man in the emergency room and ask him what's wrong, and he'll say, 'I have some indigestion,'" says Curry. "He has no idea he may be having a heart attack. Many minorities, as well as women, I think, are more likely to mistakenly think you have to have chest pain to be having a heart attack."

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