AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File

How crowdsourcing is boosting bystander CPR rates.

Every two minutes in the United States, someone suffers sudden cardiac arrest—their heart stops, and they are essentially dead.

CPR can triple a victim’s chance of survival, but in a moment of panic, finding someone in a crowd with the skills needed to help feels impossible. It’s not.

“Sudden cardiac arrest treatment is a community issue,” says Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center of Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Leary is one of the founders of the Mobile CPR Project, which launched in Philadelphia this month after a two-year pilot in Hartford, Connecticut. Leary and her team will travel throughout the city, hosting 30-minute CPR training sessions at community centers like libraries or faith-based organizations; the Mobile CPR Project also organizes courses on request. Access to CPR training is often hard to come by in low socioeconomic areas; consequently, bystander response is, too. The Mobile CPR Project hopes to close that gap.  

Many people, Leary says, feel trepidation when confronted with the idea that their action could save a life: it feels like too great a responsibility. But since the American Heart Association revised its resuscitation guidelines in 2008 to advocate for hands-only (or compression-only) CPR, it can be as straightforward as knowing how to find the center of someone’s chest and pushing down 100 times per minute. And doing something is better than doing nothing at all: “You can’t hurt someone worse than dead,” Leary says.

Still, though, there’s the matter of connecting a CPR-trained person with someone whose heart has stopped—and doing so as quickly as possible. While initiatives like the Mobile CPR Project are out there working to get more citizens trained, an app called PulsePoint is forming a responsive network of those who already are.

Launched in 2011, PulsePoint activates an alert on the phones of people who have downloaded the app every time a 911 call is coded as a cardiac arrest, says Shannon Smith, a PulsePoint spokesperson. You must be CPR-trained in order to register as a responder through PulsePoint (the app also connects users with training materials). People who register, Smith says, become vital parts of the connective tissue between the community and local emergency dispatch services.

The need to integrate the two, Smith says, sparked the idea for PulsePoint. In 2011, Richard Price, the fire department chief in San Ramon, California, was off-duty for an afternoon; he was having lunch with a friend at a strip-mall restaurant. In the distance, he heard sirens, but he hadn’t been paged; he figured there was no emergency. When the trucks pulled into the parking lot right in front of him, he learned that a man in the store next to the restaurant where he was eating had suffered cardiac arrest and died.

Smith remembers Price saying: “Here I am, the fire chief—I could’ve have done something.” Anybody, had they known what was happening, could have done something. Price founded PulsePoint to take that idea out of the hypothetical and into reality.

A map of PulsePoint registered responders in Portland, Oregon. (PulsePoint)

In the event of a cardiac arrest, time is of the essence: it’s often in those minutes between the 911 call and the arrival of help that a life is lost. PulsePoint cuts down on that wait time. It’s now active in 1,600 communities in 26 states; over 750,000 CPR-trained users have registered as responders. Physio-Control, a CPR equipment and defibrillator manufacturer, tracks the number of cardiac arrests and responses registered through PulsePoint. To date, a total of 10,300 cardiac arrest alerts have been sent out; 25,847 people have showed up to help. A recent study of a similar program in Sweden found that mobile-phone alerts increased the rate of bystander CPR from 48 percent to 62 percent.

When a PulsePoint alert goes off on a phone, Smith says, all other mobile applications freeze. The responder is shown a map of their location relative to the victim, as well as where to find the nearest Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs). Each district sets its own response radius, Smith says: more dense locales like Seattle, where PulsePoint recently launched, might opt for a shorter reach (within walking distance of the scene), while small towns might extend the app’s reach to cover the whole area.

PulsePoint “is a virtual way of saying, ‘where’s the doctor?’’ Smith says. The app and programs like the Mobile CPR Project bring individuals’ health into public awareness—and most people want to do the right thing and help, Smith adds. Going through training and signing up for alerts “gets people to do something rather than nothing,” Leary says.   

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