Mean total incongruence index was 7.31 for total sample, 7.29 for men, and 7.33 for women. Spearman's ρ correlation between “Overall, how well did the symptoms of your heart attack match what you expected a heart attack would be like?” and total incongruence index was significant for the total sample (r = 0.233, P = .022) and for men (r = 0.278, P = .030), but not for women. Spearman's ρ correlation between the total incongruence index and decision time was not significant. Men with a greater total incongruence index had a longer decision time, whereas women had a shorter decision time.
Response to Symptoms Questionnaire
Women (42%) were more likely to be alone when symptoms began than were men (16%) (χ2 = 7.817, df = 2, P = .020). The other person (family, nonfamily, or none) present at the onset of symptoms did not impact decision time. The most frequent first action taken by the first non-medical person when told about the symptoms was a suggestion to get medical help (33%); 12% suggested rest or medication, 10% contacted emergency medical services, and 10% transported the patient to the hospital. The first action taken by the other person present did not have a significant effect on decision time. The most frequent first action taken by the patient at onset of symptoms was an attempt to relax (24%); 21% took medication and 9% tried self-help remedy. Only 2% called emergency medical services as their first action. Patients' first action did not have a significant effect on decision time.
Stomach, hiatal hernia, or gall bladder was most often believed to be the source of the symptoms (31%), followed by heart (19%) and muscle pain (19%). Other sources included fatigue, flu, lung problem, no idea, high blood sugar, hard work, food poisoning, and arthritis. Source of symptoms did not have a significant effect on decision time.
Median decision time was 30 minutes for the 56% whose symptoms completely interfered with doing normal activities, 360 minutes for the 30% whose symptoms interfered somewhat, and 333 minutes for the 14% whose symptoms did not interfere at all (F = 8.586, P = .000).
Seriousness of the symptoms when first experienced was rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating “not at all” and 5 indicating “extremely serious.” The mean seriousness was 2.69, and those who rated their symptoms extremely serious had a shorter decision time (F = 2.549, P = .044). Level of discomfort or pain did not significantly affect decision time.
Anxiety was rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating “not at all” and 5 indicating “extremely anxious.” The mean anxiety score for the total sample was 2.5, with women more anxious than men ( for women = 2.85, for men = 2.30, t = −1.993, df = 95, P = .049). Decision time was significantly shorter for the total sample and men who reported a greater extent of anxiety, but not for women (F = 3.567, P = .009; F = 2.625, P = .044; F = 1.488, P = .230, respectively). Ability to control symptoms was rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating “none at all” and 5 indicating “an extreme amount of control.” The mean was 2.9, and those with more control over their symptoms had a significantly longer decision time (F = 3.703, P = .008).
Options for insurance coverage were uninsured, private insurance, or Medicare/Medicaid. Because of the age of the sample, many patients had both Medicare and private insurance, and this option was added for statistical analyses. Medicare and private insurance was held by 42% of the total sample, private insurance was held by 38%, Medicare/Medicaid was held by 14%, and 6% were uninsured. Seventeen percent of women were uninsured versus no men (χ2 = 11.007, df = 1, P = .001). Type of insurance coverage did not have a significant effect on decision time.
Sixty-one percent of patients had not heard about “clot busters” prior to their heart attack. Only 2 patients did not know about angioplasty. Knowledge of clot busters and angioplasty did not have a significant effect on decision time.
Predictors of Decision Time
Multiple regression was used to address the question “In a population of rural patients who have experienced an AMI, what is the predictive effect of demographic, clinical, cognitive, emotional, and social factors upon decision time?” Independent variables were entered into the model in sequence according to decreasing R2 values. The extent to which symptoms interfered with the ability to carry out normal activities had the highest R2 at 0.119, followed by extent of anxiety at 0.113, ability to control symptoms at 0.092, perceived seriousness of symptoms at 0.076, person with at onset of symptoms at 0.016, and type of insurance coverage at 0.016.
The 3 independent variables, extent to which symptoms interfered with the ability to carry out normal activities, degree of anxiety, and type of insurance coverage, resulted in the best model and explained 23% of the variance in decision time. Symptoms that completely prevented carrying out normal activities, symptoms that produced an extreme level of anxiety, and having Medicare and private insurance were likely to result in a shorter decision time.
Thirty percent of the patients experienced symptoms that did not match at all what they expected a heart attack would be like. However, this lack of incongruence resulted in a longer decision time only for men, not for women. Zerwic et al reported longer delay times for patients with dissimilar symptoms.12 Johnson and King earlier reported a longer delay in receiving treatment for the 74% of patients who experienced a mismatch in symptoms.13
Incongruence measured by the total incongruence index was 7.31 out of a maximum of 20. This indicates there was a greater match than mismatch between expected and actual symptoms, and this contradicts the results reported in the preceding paragraph. So, which of these 2 methods, the single question or the incongruence index, provides a true reflection of the incongruence between expected and actual symptoms? One way to address this question is through analyzing the correlation between the 2 methods. Although the total incongruence index was much lower than the mismatch identified by the single question, a moderate positive correlation did exist (r = 0.278, P = .05). Some of the patients were unable to answer the single question initially and responded after identifying the individual symptoms expected and experienced. This alteration in sequence in answering the questions may have skewed the results.
Demographic factors that may have influenced decision time included sex, age, and insurance coverage. Men and women had similar decision times, and their ages were similar to the ages of participants in previous reports.12 Patients who had both Medicare and private insurance had the shortest decision time. This may be a reflection of a probable increased familiarity with the healthcare system, caused by older persons tending to have more chronic conditions and feeling more comfortable seeking healthcare. The effect of the type of insurance on decision time was not significant.
Clinical factors that affect decision time are the actual symptoms experienced and the effect of those symptoms on normal activities. Fifty-six percent had symptoms that completely prevented normal activities, with a decision time of 30 minutes, compared with a decision time of 333 minutes for the 14% who reported no interference (F = 8.586, P = .000). Treatment was usually sought when symptoms persisted despite self-treatment, or when intensity of symptoms increased. Women experienced significantly more fatigue than did men, consistent with the findings of Zuzelo.14
Significantly more patients expected to have, than actually had, shortness of breath, tiredness or fatigue, numbness in arm or hand, dizziness, sweating, or lightheadedness or feeling faint. It appears that these atypical symptoms of AMI were well known to the patients, though waiting for these symptoms to occur would likely add to the decision time. Symptoms were expected to be more severe than were actually experienced, with some patients referring to the media's tendency to portray AMI as a dramatic event.
The percentage (96%) of patients who expected to have chest pain was much higher than the percentage (71%) reported by Johnson and King.13 Chest pain was experienced by 83% of the patients compared with 53% reported by Gupta et al.15 The longer decision time by the 17 patients without chest pain was not significant. The present results conflict with the findings by Horne and colleagues,16 where patients without chest pain had a longer delay time than did those with chest pain (mean 11.5 hours vs 4.8 hours, t = 2.2, df = 87, P = < .05). Caution is needed when comparing these results, owing to the fact that Horne studied total delay time, not just decision time.
The median pain score was 8, an indication of the severity of pain, and does not coincide with 43% of patients stating symptoms were mild. Perhaps the patients were expecting the symptoms to be extremely severe. Severity of symptoms did not affect decision time, though it has been negatively correlated both with delay in seeking treatment17 and with having no effect on delay time.9 Severity of pain may be related to the extent to which the symptoms interfered with carrying out normal activities, which was a significant factor for decreasing decision time among women.
The perceived source of the symptoms is a cognitive factor that may affect decision time. Twenty patients attributed symptoms to their heart, and they had a decision time of 30 minutes. Recognizing symptoms as cardiac in origin has been reported to result in a significantly shorter delay time.11 Stomach, hiatal hernia, or gallbladder was selected most often, with a decision time of 150 minutes. Nausea or vomiting and diarrhea were experienced more often than anticipated, and its presence likely contributed to the frequent selection of stomach, hiatal hernia, or gallbladder as the source of symptoms. Education is needed to alert the public to the fact that gastrointestinal symptoms may indeed be caused by AMI. The longest decision time, 300 minutes, was for those who attributed their symptoms to a muscle problem. Decision time differences based on cause of the symptoms were not significant.
Emotional variables in decision time include anxiety and a feeling of control over the symptoms. Decision times based on extent of anxiety decreased significantly from 330 minutes for “not at all anxious” to 10 minutes for “extremely anxious.” An increased feeling of control over the symptoms did not negatively affect delay time in the research carried out by Reilly and colleagues.10 No consistent pattern emerged regarding the perceived ability to have control over the symptoms and may have been the result of difficulty in understanding the question.
The other person present when symptoms began and the first action taken by that person are social variables affecting decision time. The presence of a nonfamily member resulted in a shorter delay compared with a family member being present,10 while being with family, friends, others, or alone was not a predictor of delay in seeking treatment.18 Slightly more patients (67%) were with a family member than the 46%–61% reported by Dracup and colleagues,19 and the presence of a family member did not influence decision time. The most frequently reported first action taken by the other person present was a suggestion to get medical help. This would likely lead to a shorter decision time, though the suggestion to rest or take medication would prolong the decision time while the patient waits to assess the effect of the action. The first action taken by the other person did not significantly influence decision time.
Trying to relax or taking medication were the most frequently reported first actions taken by the patients, and both of these actions would seem to extend decision time while the patient waits to evaluate the effects of the intervention. Patients who ignored their symptoms had the longest decision times. Common sense would predict a longer time when symptoms are ignored, but there was no significant association between first action taken and decision time. Multiple regression indicated that symptoms that completely prevented carrying out normal activities, symptoms that produced an extreme level of anxiety, and having Medicare and private insurance accounted for 23% of the variance in decision time.
Patients were recruited from 2 acute care facilities in the Northeast and may not be representative of all rural persons. Use of the US Census Bureau definition of rural counties resulted in several patients living near population centers of more than 50,000 people, and they may not have considered themselves to be rural. Another limitation was lack of reliability testing of the MIHASI, the instrument that quantified the extent of incongruence of symptoms. This study looked specifically at decision time, which is a part of the total delay time, and this limited the ability to make comparisons with other studies that generally use total delay time.
The vast majority of the variables discussed in this study cannot be changed, and so it becomes a matter of alerting the public to the reactions they can anticipate will occur in response to symptoms of AMI. Symptoms that interfere with the ability to carry out normal activities is a primary indication it is time to seek treatment. The urgency for seeking care becomes even greater when a high level of anxiety also exists. A major focus on heart attack education needs to be the responses the person may have to the symptoms, the feelings and actions rather than just the physical symptoms. It is also very important to let people know that their actual symptom experience may not match what they would expect to occur. Symptoms that are persistent, symptoms that interfere with normal activities, and a high level of anxiety are all very valid reasons to go to the emergency department, and it is not necessary to know the cause of the symptoms, or even suspect a heart attack. This information needs to be included in materials used for educating both the public and healthcare professionals, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation instructional books and American Heart Association posters and booklets.
This study is the first known to the author to specifically focus on the AMI symptom experience in the rural population, an underrepresented group in the research literature. More research is needed in this population because of the key concepts in rural health of work beliefs and health beliefs, isolation and distance, self-reliance, lack of anonymity, outsider/insider, and old timer/newcomer. It also focused on the greatest component of delay to treatment, that being decision time.
AMI remains the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The morbidity and mortality associated with AMI may be reduced as a result of a decrease in delay in seeking treatment when more is known about how people interpret and respond to their symptoms.
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Keywords:© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
AMI symptoms; decision time