Study: Married patients bounce back better after heart surgery

WASHINGTON — Your marital status could have a big impact if you have heart surgery.  

Data has long supported the notion that married people have higher survival rates. Now, there’s evidence they also function better post-op.

“The suggestion that marital status might have a link to outcomes, we think, is something that is compelling,” said Dr. Mark Neuman, an anesthesiologist who led the research team at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Penn researchers crunched data on 1,576 adults over 50 who had heart surgery, using numbers from a long-term University of Michigan survey of health, medical care and family structure.

They found that survey participants who were divorced, separated, widowed or never married had 40 percent greater odds of dying or developing a functional disability in the first two years after cardiac surgery.

Neuman says more study on the marriage-medical link is needed.  But he says there is a message here both for patients contemplating surgery, and those who provide their care.

The Penn medical school professor said health care providers need to look at the whole patient and adopt more of a holistic approach when it comes to considering the factors that can have an impact on recovery.

This research did not look into exactly how marital status improved medical outcomes, only that it has a tendency to do so.

Dr. Allen Taylor, chief of cardiology at the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute, said there are a couple of theories: One is married people tend to be healthier going into surgery. They have more social support, and there’s an emotional bond that can help them deal with the stress of illness.

“So whether it is healthier to start, social support or emotional support, it is something about this empathetic caring relationship that leads to better outcomes,” Taylor said.

He agreed with Neuman that health care providers need to take all of this into account in designing patient services.

“If patients that have this important relationship in their lives do 40 percent better after a procedure in terms of their functional abilities, we should take note of that and try to learn the ‘whys,”  Taylor suggests.

The way to start may be by asking patients about possible barriers to a full recovery before surgery, and whenever possible, moving to fill the gaps.

It could be as simple as making sure medicines are delivered, or providing counseling to ease stress.  

“We should start trying and start to intervene in this way to get better health outcomes and get more from our healthcare dollars,” Taylor said.

He emphasizes that sometimes health is about far more than medicines and procedures — sometimes it takes a human touch.

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