Women, men and coronary heart disease: a review of the qualitative literature


Carol Emslie,
Social and Public Health Sciences Unit,
Medical Research Council,
4 Lilybank Gardens,
Glasgow G12 8RZ,
E-mail c.emslie@msoc.mrc.gla.ac.uk


Aim.  This paper presents a review of the qualitative literature which examines the experiences of patients with coronary heart disease. The paper also assesses whether the experiences of both female and male patients are reflected in the literature and summarizes key themes.

Background.  Understanding patients’ experiences of their illness is important for coronary heart disease prevention and education. Qualitative methods are particularly suited to eliciting patients’ detailed understandings and perceptions of illness. As much previous research has been ‘gender neutral’, this review pays particular attention to gender.

Methods.  Published papers from 60 qualitative studies were identified for the review through searches in MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PREMEDLINE, PsychINFO, Social Sciences Citation Index and Web of Science using keywords related to coronary heart disease.

Findings.  Early qualitative studies of patients with coronary heart disease were conducted almost exclusively with men, and tended to generalize from ‘male’ experience to ‘human’ experience. By the late 1990s this pattern had changed, with the majority of studies including women and many being conducted with solely female samples. However, many studies that include both male and female coronary heart disease patients still do not have a specific gender focus. Key themes in the literature include interpreting symptoms and seeking help, belief about coronary ‘candidates’ and relationships with health professionals. The influence of social roles is important: many female patients have difficulties reconciling family responsibilities and medical advice, while male patients worry about being absent from work.

Conclusions.  There is a need for studies that compare the experiences of men and women. There is also an urgent need for work that takes masculinity and gender roles into account when exploring the experiences of men with coronary heart disease.