Feature Archive

Heart Biases That Can Kill

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

By Sid Kirchheimer
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

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.

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.