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Heart Failure Health Center

Defibrillators and Sudden Cardiac Arrest

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The study challenges the FDA requirement that only trained staff be allowed to use defibrillators. Right now, the FDA recognizes them as controlled devices, but emergency medicine experts are spearheading training efforts and pushing to have them installed in high-traffic public and private places, just like fire extinguishers.

"In terms of just teaching a person to put the pads on and push the button, the study shows it can be done very quickly," says Lance Becker, MD, an emergency medicine specialist at the University of Chicago Hospital, tells WebMD. "The devices themselves don't save lives. It's part of a chain of survival, of having the people who recognize an emergency and know how to take action, having people who know CPR, how to use the defibrillator, how to call 911," he says.

When someone goes into cardiac arrest, their chances of survival decrease 10% every minute, says Bardy. "If it takes 10 minutes from [time of] collapse to [the heart being shocked], those people will die. If you were to collapse right now, do you think someone could shock you in five minutes? If so, you would have 50% odds of survival. Much of the survival in cardiac arrest is time-dependent."

Who pays for all these defibrillators? Unless the property is privately owned, it could be your tax dollars at work, says Becker. The good news, he adds, is that "they are not terribly expensive devices anymore." The training for EMTs, however, is expensive, says Becker. "This study shows we could hone down our training." The units actually cost between $3,000 and $4,000 with all accessories.

The American Heart Association estimates that 100,000 lives a year could be saved if automated emergency defibrillators were broadly deployed in areas where large groups of people gather, such as on aircraft or in sports arenas and office buildings. In 1997, American Airlines became the first U.S. airline to carry the defibrillators in their in-flight emergency medical kits. Since then, the airline claims the kits have saved 10 lives.

Harvard School of Public Health professor John Hedley-White, MD, tells WebMD, "I unequivocally support the American Heart Association's position. It's not as though it's an enormous expense in relation to potential number of lives saved."

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