Heart Health Care Gender Inequality Can Be Fatal for Women: Report

VIDEO: Barbara Walters special: Surgeon explains surprising signs of heart disease.
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Michelle Burke recalled staring in envy at her neighbors in the driveway as they packed up for a trip to Six Flags with their children.

"There is no way I can do something that physical," Burke says she thought to herself. She was 32 at the time, with a newborn, a 2-year-old and 4-year-old in tow. She felt constantly exhausted.

She visited several medical specialists, who chalked up her extreme fatigue to young motherhood. "When your kids grow up, you won't be tired anymore," a doctor told her.

But she pressed for answers and finally a female doctor diagnosed Burke with an enlarged heart, which makes for a dangerous irregular heartbeat.

After the diagnosis, one doctor suggested she go on Coumadin. It was the standard prescription for many people who had her condition. But she visited another doctor, this time a female.

The doctor told her: "You're a young menstruating female who is already bleeding a lot. I wouldn't prescribe Coumadin for you."

"It was the first time a doctor had looked at me as a woman, and not a textbook," said Burke, now 46, from St. Louis, Mo. "She looked at me as a woman, mother, wife, worker -- a whole person, not just a person in a textbook, where many of the studies were old and done on 70-year-old men."

Burke now has her condition under control with an internal defibrillator pacemaker and takes seven medications for her condition. She now acts a spokesperson for Go Red for Women, a social initiative that empowers women to take charge of their heart health.

Burke is not what one typically thinks of when they hear the term, "heart condition." She had always been healthy when she was young. Experts say it's important to recognize the gender differences in heart health, but a new HealthGrades report, which sought to evaluate gender-specific outcomes in heart care in men and women, found that just being a woman increased the likelihood of death in heart surgery patients compared with their male counterparts.

Researchers said there are several reasons for this conclusion. Symptoms of heart disease in women usually appear at an older age than men, and often times, many women have symptoms without any history of the disease.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. The American Heart Association states that women account for nearly half of all heart disease deaths, but only about half of those women are aware that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women.

The greatest inconsistency came under valve replacement surgery, where women were at a 44 percent greater risk of dying than men.

Among other statistics, the report found that only 33 percent of women who had a heart attack in 2009 received some sort of surgery, compared with 45 percent of men. And female heart attack patients who received any kind of cardiovascular treatment had a death rate that was 30 percent higher than men.

Experts say that women tend to do worse than men in cardiovascular disease treatments. They are also less likely to receive recommended preventive and follow-up care than men.

Along with the varying symptoms, Dr. Malissa Wood, co-director of the Corrigan Women's Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, said there are several other contributing factors that lead to differences in treatment and outcome between genders.

Wood said that women, and sometimes even their doctors, still do not fully grasp that more women die from heart disease than men, and women are more likely to have atypical or unusual symptoms.

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