Want another reason to lug the EKG machine out of the ambulance on your next call? A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and reported on by many national news outlets has found some information that may change EMS care.
“The study looked at 1.4 million patients who had experienced a heart attack between 1994 and 2006 to investigate the relationship between age and gender and heart attacks, specifically symptoms and death rates. Data revealed that 14.6 percent of women hospitalized with a heart attack died, compared with 10.3 percent of men.
Women were also much more likely to have a heart attack without any chest pain – 42 percent, compared with 30.7 percent of men.”
Think about how the media represents heart attack symptoms to the public and about how we educate the public to recognize heart attack symptoms. Think about how even our EMS training has prepared us to recognize the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. We all pretty much look for the same thing, chest pain or pressure with radiation down the left arm. However, this study shows that a staggering 42% of women don’t have that symptom and that 30.7% of men don’t either. It tells us that nearly half of the patients who have this deadly condition don’t present with the symptoms we’re classically trained to recognize.
The study’s other finding that more men than women who had myocardial infarctions died after having the condition help illustrate another point: When looking for heart attacks, we all tend to assess everyone like they’re a 45 year-old white male. It is important to remember that age, gender, ethnicity, and culture play a role in how symptoms present. Comorbid conditions such as diabetes can change the way a heart attack presents as well.
This study helps confirm what we pretty much all know, that no two heart attacks are alike. When the heart doesn’t get blood flow to a part of it, it doesn’t work well, and it sends signals to our bodies that we may misinterpret. The classic “Chest Pain” symptom of a heart attack may well present as Jaw Pain, arm pain, weakness, diaphoresis, back or abdominal pain, or even making the patient feel like they have to burp. Unexplained fatigue with exertion, the inability to lie flat, or even dizziness and/or fainting may point to a heart attack.
EMS plays an extremely important role in cardiac care. It could be one of the biggest areas where the appropriate field assessment, working diagnosis, treatment, and transport decisions made by EMS improve the quality of life for the population as a whole. The proper assessment and working diagnosis by EMS can set the patient on the proper path through the healthcare system and make a huge difference in their quality of life.
What does this mean for your care today? It means that should you suspect that a patient has a possibility of having cardiac ischemia or is otherwise presenting with a cluster of symptoms you can’t pin down you should try to perform a 12-lead EKG with your first set of vital signs. While delaying treatment to perform a 12-lead is not anyone’s goal, emerging evidence is suggesting that significant ST elevation can normalize within as little as 4 minutes of common EMS care, including just the placement of a patient on oxygen. If we capture a symptomatic 12-lead at the point where the patient’s symptoms are most acute we can properly make the diagnosis and save the patient precious minutes, hours, and days of diagnostics to pin down the cause. Serial 12-leads, taking multiple 12-lead EKGs at various time intervals can prove beneficial as well. Remember that one 12-lead is a reference, two are a trend.
Gathering the best information we can on all patients in order to help guide their treatment through the healthcare system is one of the most powerful benefits of EMS care. Let’s help all of our patients get the care they need.