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Innovation

Need to Save a Life? There’s an App for That.

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Three years ago, San Ramon Valley Fire Chief Richard Price was eating dinner when he heard ambulance sirens. Someone next door had suffered a cardiac arrest and was unconscious.

“That whole time, while that crew was making their way to the scene, I had an AED in my car. I could’ve started CPR,” says Price. This event made Price realize that the system in place to help people during a cardiac crisis is not good enough. So, he — like many health care innovators today — turned to technology to enhance our society’s ability to save lives.

After a person’s heart stops beating, brain damage can occur in four to six minutes. By 10 minutes, there is almost no chance of survival. 

Every year, around 383,000 sudden cardiac arrests occur in the U.S. and less than eight percent of people who suffer them outside of a hospital survive. That’s because the first few minutes after cardiac arrest are vital to survival. After a person’s heart stops beating, brain damage can occur in four to six minutes. By 10 minutes, there is almost no chance of survival.

Even in Price’s former fire district, which he said had many advantages, ambulance response times were seven minutes in the city, eight in the suburbs, and fifteen in rural areas. Quality CPR given immediately after cardiac arrest can double, even triple, the chance of survival but this can only happen if CPR-trained people nearby know that someone needs their help.

That is the exact problem that Price is working to remedy.

Rather than merely reflecting on his experience as an unfortunate inevitability, Price was resolved to find out what more he could do to prevent similar situations in the future. That is how he came up with PulsePoint, an app that notifies CPR-trained bystanders of nearby cardiac arrests.

In Sweden, the capital city of Stockholm has set up SMSLifesaver, their own CPR texting service. 

When people download PulsePoint, they will receive notifications of cardiac arrests in their area that may require CPR. In order to elicit the quickest response possible, these notifications are activated by their local public safety communications center simultaneously with the dispatch of fire and EMS. A live map is included in the notification, which gives both the location of the emergency and any nearby AEDs (automated external defibrillators). It also has a “CPR How-To” button and lets users see other emergency situations happening in the area.

The PulsePoint app is currently in the pockets of 75,000 people in 350 communities throughout 14 states, but it’s not the only app attacking this critical issue. In Sweden, the capital city of Stockholm has set up SMSlivräddare (SMSLifesaver), their own CPR texting service.  Like PulsePoint, it is an alert system sent out to CPR-trained citizens in conjunction with an emergency services request. However, it is a text message system rather than an app, so it works on any type of cell phone but doesn’t show a map or the locations of AEDs.

To many, these innovations are a sensible marriage of technology and Good Samaritanism. Still, people do have concerns about using the general public to address medical emergencies.

Price says one of the most common worries people have about the app is the possible violation of privacy. To address this, he points out that PulsePoint does not give any personal information about the person who needs help and it only alerts bystanders to emergencies in public places. For people who are concerned about being sued for performing CPR on a stranger, they should look into their state’s Good Samaritan laws, which are generally meant to protect people aiding in an emergency.

Of course, PulsePoint and SMSlivräddare address only one type of medical emergency. Eighty percent of sudden cardiac arrests occur in the home and there are an endless number of other medical emergencies that require medical knowledge beyond what the average person has.

Some have concerns about using the general public to address medical emergencies.  

For these, smartphone users can turn to apps for more general medical purposes, like the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Pocket First-Aid and CPR app. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, this app was used by an aid worker to save his own life. It instructed him in how to dress his head wound and tourniquet his severely injured leg. Kelly Griesenbeck, a community marketing manager for the AHA, said in an email that this app — the AHA’s first — was their way of getting basic, simple first aid and CPR knowledge to the masses. It contains easy-to-follow instructions for CPR as well as dozens of videos and high-resolution images to help people address medical emergencies of all kinds.

These days, the emergency aid we can receive through our phones is incredible but the best hope for someone in a medical emergency is still a physical person, ready to help. Even with appropriate skills, many people are daunted by the task of saving a life.

“No one is in a better position than a nearby, CPR-trained citizen.”

Price says that he was told only about half of his CPR students would have the courage to aid in a CPR-related emergency. Thus a deliberate part of PulsePoint’s design is to get multiple people to the scene of cardiac emergencies, giving each other support and encouragement.

“No one is in a better position than a nearby, CPR-trained citizen,” says Price. “No matter how well-trained that paramedic is, how well-equipped that ambulance is, that’s seven minutes away and they’re not going to have as big an impact on that outcome than if CPR is started and the AED is deployed.”

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