According to research carried out at the University of Leeds, almost one third (30%) of patients who suffer a heart attack are initially misdiagnosed and the chances of female patients having a late diagnosis is over 50%.

Heart attacks are caused when a blood clot blocks one of the main arteries to the heart. Although many people imagine that a person would collapse to the floor clutching at their chest in pain during a heart attack, symptoms are often far less dramatic and this may be why so many are misdiagnosed. Everyone experiences different symptoms, but according to NHS Guidance, they can include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort – this could be a sensation of pressure, tightness or squeezing in the chest. The pain is not always severe and can feel similar to indigestion.

  • Pain in other parts of the body - it can feel as if the pain is travelling from your chest to your arms (usually the left arm is affected, but it can affect both arms), jaw, neck, back and abdomen.

  • Dizziness

  • Sweating

  • Sickness or nausea

  • Shortness of breath

  • Anxiety

  • Coughing

A heart attack is a medical emergency and it is particularly important to recognise the symptoms and begin treatment as soon as possible to reduce the risk of death. NHS advice is to call 999 immediately if you, or someone that you are with, may be having a heart attack.

The research used data collected over a period of 9 years from 243 NHS hospitals and involving over 600,000 patients aged between 18 and 100 years old. The study concluded that 198,534 patients were initially misdiagnosed, with a higher percentage of these being women.

One of the researchers involved in the study, Dr Chris Gale, has commented that one reason behind the higher instance of misdiagnosis in women may be because they often experience more mild symptoms than men. Rather than intense chest pain, the patient may have palpitations and breathlessness and this can lead both the patient and her doctors to conclude that the problem is something less serious. In addition, Dr Gale believes that, when we think of a heart attack victim, we often imagine a “middle aged man who is overweight, has diabetes and smokes.” Therefore, people often believe that, if they do not fit this description, they will not have a heart attack. Dr Gale warns that this is not the case at all and a heart attack can affect a greater number of people that we may expect. Dr Sarah Clark, a Consultant Cardiologist at Papworth Hospital, has also suggested that the higher instance of misdiagnosis in women could be because female patients typically attend hospital less frequently than men and may also be more likely to downplay their symptoms.

The NHS has responded to the study by pointing out that heart attack survival rates are at the highest that they have ever been. However, it recognises that time is of the essence and says that it is working to improve tests that could improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis. It is also aiming to raise awareness of the symptoms of a heart attack within the medical profession and the wider public in the hope that this will enable more people to recognise when they may need hospital treatment.