Public Defibrillators

Published: May, 2004

If you suffer from cardiac arrest, help is only a 911 call away. Paramedics can use defibrillators to shock your heart back to a normal rhythm. But unfortunately, every minute you spend waiting for their arrival reduces your chance of survival by 10%. Help may soon be closer than your local paramedic and it may come from an unlikely source — someone without medical expertise.

Until recently, witnesses to someone having a cardiac arrest were limited in the help they could provide — calling 911 and performing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Now, portable automated defibrillators about the size of a laptop computer are available. These devices not only deliver a shock to restore a regular heartbeat, they also determine whether a shock is really needed, making it possible and safe for people without medical training to use.

A recent study placed the automated defibrillators in roughly 1,000 public locations in 24 cities, including shopping centers, sports facilities, office buildings, community centers, factories, entertainment venues, apartment buildings, and schools. Volunteers who worked in these locations were trained to perform CPR or trained to perform CPR and use the automated defibrillator. After two years and 292 resuscitation attempts, the overall survival rate for the study was still very low, 15%, but the use of automated defibrillators saved almost twice as many lives as CPR alone. This shows automated defibrillators can save lives when used by common people trained to operate the equipment.

Nearly 250,000 Americans die from cardiac arrest every year. Although most of these deaths occur in the home, approximately 20% occur in public. So automated defibrillators in public places could save a substantial number of lives. The equipment may become commonplace someday, especially in locations where senior citizens are likely to spend time, as this population is most at risk for cardiac arrest. In the future, automated defibrillators may even be found in the homes of people who have suffered a heart attack.

You can make a few phone calls to find out if the places you frequent have automated defibrillators. But the most important thing you can do is lower your chances of ever having cardiac arrest in the first place. This means altering or eliminating the risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol levels, and diabetes. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help you lower some of these risk factors.

May 2004 Update

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