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A Shocking Way to Save Lives

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He also says the officer's reluctance to use defibrillators was overcome, at least in part, by allowing police personnel rather than doctors to do the training. Simplicity of operation is a key issue in a device that can make a life or death difference, and another study of defibrillators aboard airliners shows they can be used successfully by trained flight attendants.

Over a two-year period, defibrillators were used on more than 200 passengers aboard American Airlines flights. According to researchers, the defibrillators got a perfect score for determining if a shock were necessary. Nine of the 21 patients who actually got treated on the plane were later released from the hospital. Interestingly, a physician happened to be on the aircraft almost 70% of the time to help out.

"What was impressive about the device was that in no case was a shock recommended or advised for someone who wasn't in ventricular fibrillation," says Robert Kowal, MD, PhD, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Even sixth-graders have quickly learned how to use defibrillators, and their response time is only thirty seconds slower than emergency medical technicians, according to one study. Now that politicians as well as physicians are talking about placing the $3,000 machines in almost any public place, what are the chances someone using it with little or no training could make the situation worse?

Theoretically, defibrillators can actually cause an irregular heartbeat if it malfunctions or is used incorrectly. Based on what he's seen, the likelihood of that happening "is very low," says Richard Page, MD, director of clinical cardiac electrophysiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Vital Information:

  • Each year in the U.S., there are about 350,000 cases of sudden death, where the heart's electric system causes an irregular heartbeat. Researchers suggest putting a device called a defibrillator in more public places. A defibrillator can shock a sick heart back into a normal heartbeat pattern and could saved roughly 35,000 lives.
  • If someone uses a defibrillator on 10 patients within two minutes of the start of trouble, five would be expected to live.
  • Test programs are training police officers and flight attendants on how to use portable defibrillators. Organizers say many lives have been saved. They add the novice-friendly equipment has not delivered a shock when it wasn't needed.
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