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Heart Disease Health Center

Too Many Heart Attack Victims Don't Call 911

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The most troubling finding was that using emergency medical services was lower among people who called their doctors about their symptoms. Mann thinks it's likely these people were falsely reassured. It may be that "the phone call with the physician is reducing their anxiety to the point that they now can drive themselves. Or, the other option is that the physicians feel ... [that] they're well-versed in the patient's history, and they're saying, 'This is your third angina [chest pain] attack. Why don't you have your wife drive you in,'" Mann says. "I don't know which of those [possibilities] is true, but the cold hard facts are that 83% who called their doctor and ended up having a heart attack didn't call 911."

He and his colleagues are planning another survey that will ask patients more specific questions about phone calls with their doctors.

The current study demonstrates that the public must be educated about when and how to seek treatment, according to David A. Meyerson, MD, a cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and a spokesman for the American Heart Association (AHA). "The AHA would like people to understand that there are perhaps 1.2 million heart attacks occurring in the U.S. each year, and only 950,000 make it to the hospital. So 250,000 are dying before they get [there]." The earlier you get treatment, the more likely you will avoid damage, he says.

"People are embarrassed," Meyerson says. "They don't want to come to the emergency room complaining of something and find it to be indigestion. They're afraid they made the wrong decision. If the symptom[s] ... look like it is cardiac-related, we should urge them to seek early treatment."

Prompt treatment also may make a dent in the in-hospital deaths. "We now have the ability to turn off a heart attack in midstream with clot-dissolving medications or angioplasty," which involves using a tiny balloon that is inflated to flatten the clot in the clogged vessel. These treatments can preserve heart muscle function, preventing heart failure and reducing deaths, he adds.

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