Why Hospitals Are Dangerous Places for Heart Attacks

Delayed defibrillation in hospitals could kill thousands of Americans yearly.

Jan. 3, 2008— -- If your heart were to stop suddenly, you'd think a hospital would be the safest place to be. Maybe not.

An alarming new study, released today in the New England Journal of Medicine, says that in about a third of cardiac arrest cases nationwide, hospital staffs do not respond quickly enough, which increases the risk of brain damage and death, and may contribute to the deaths of thousands of Americans every year.

Watch the full report tonight on "World News with Charles Gibson" at 6:30 p.m. ET

Click here to ask one of the authors of this new study a question about hospital heart care.

On television a "code blue" is called, and doctors and nurses come running with a defibrillator to shock the heart back to life. But in actuality, hospital staffs often don't move that fast, and the consequences can be chilling.

If you get prompt defibrillation within two minutes of cardiac arrest, your changes of surviving are nearly 40 percent. But delay defibrillation — even by a few minutes — and your chances tumble to 22.2 percent.

Today's study, which looked at 6,789 cardiac arrest cases at 369 hospitals, showed that hospital staffs took longer than two minutes nearly one-third of the time.

Now compare those statistics to the more than 50 percent of patients who survive heart attacks while in a crowded airport or a casino, where defibrillators are readily available.

Delays in hospitals were most common at night and on weekends. Patients in smaller hospitals with fewer than 250 beds, and in units without heart monitors, are in especially grave danger.

What's the solution to this problem in hospitals nationwide?

Researchers say hospitals should conduct resuscitation drills to keep their staffs sharp, and they should also invest in newer equipment.

Most hospitals rely on traditional defibrillators, which can be more cumbersome and time-consuming, and usually require a doctor. But newer defibrillators, which cost about $500 each and can be found in many airports and hotels, are much faster and easier to use. Because they are fully automated, the machine decides whether a shock is needed, and quickly administers it — so that anyone can use it quickly.

The sad reality, say some doctors, is that, with so many of these devices now in public places, you may actually be better off if your heart stops in a department store than in many hospitals.

For a comprehensive listing of Medicine on the Cutting Edge reports with John McKenzie, click here.