Too many heart attack patients hesitate to call a potentially life-saving ambulance because they underestimate the severity of their symptoms, according to research undertaken by Sutherland Heart Clinic.

The 18-month study of 100 people in the southern suburbs of Sydney who had heart attacks investigated the reasons some didn’t call an ambulance.

It found patients often wrongly believed their symptoms were too mild to warrant a trip by ambulance to hospital, leading to potentially disastrous outcomes.

The study found:

  • heart attack patients often underestimated the severity of their symptoms
  • they wrongly believed their symptoms were too mild to warrant a trip by ambulance to hospital, potentially leading to disastrous outcomes
  • calling an ambulance significantly shortened the time to treatment (often the insertion of a stent) and this had previously been shown to increase the chance of survival

The research, conducted by Sutherland Heart Clinic nurse educator Susan Sillato, was sobering when it came to the importance of acting swiftly at the onset of chest pain or shortness of breath.

Ms Sillato said more lives could be saved if people were less cautious about calling an ambulance. “In these situations, every minute counts,” she said.

“Someone who needs to get to hospital quickly could think their symptoms are too mild to call an ambulance, but either the symptoms can be deceptive, or the situation rapidly changes. And if that happens, it could be too late.”

Another reason why people didn’t call an ambulance was their perception of the distance to hospital and their anticipated response time of ambulance. Some study participants said they were “just up the road and could get to hospital quicker”. Unfortunately, this thinking is flawed in the event of sudden deterioration or cardiac arrest endangering not just the patient but others on the road.

She said even if someone called an ambulance, it was not uncommon for their condition to deteriorate rapidly en route to hospital and for them to need resuscitation.

She said in these cases, having the expert attention of trained professionals on hand, could mean the difference between life and death.

Ms Sillato said people often misunderstood their risk factors for heart attack or cardiovascular disease and were not properly informed about the warning signs.

She said no two heart attacks were the same, so it was often difficult to brief people on the symptoms they should be most alarmed about.

But common misconceptions about the amount and type of pain experienced before a heart attack caused people to exercise poor judgment when it came to seeking urgent medical care.

She said 90 per cent of participants in her study, all of whom experienced a potentially deadly heart attack, reported having chest pain before deciding to go to hospital.

But many rated the pain as being relatively mild and this gave them a false sense of security.

Many patients’ knowledge of heart attack came from the experience of family or friends or from television and movies leading to false expectations and misinterpretation of their event. A third of the patients had no previous expectations at all. With only 17% claiming that their expectations matched reality there is a glaring disparity in public education.

Only 6% of study participants received information regarding heart attacks from reputable sources.

The study was based on 100 heart attack patients brought to Sutherland Heart Clinic, which is a 24/7 emergency care service with two interventional cardiology catheter labs located at Sutherland Hospital in the Sutherland Shire south of Sydney.

The results of the study were presented at the 70th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand in August 2022.