Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Office defibrillators are worth the expense

October 9, 2010

Few pieces of business technology can lay claim to saving lives. One gadget can, but odds are you don’t have one.

It’s called an “automated external defibrillator,” or AED. These are portable, easy-to-use cousins of the big heart-shocking machines you see on TV medical shows. Modern AEDs are small and relatively inexpensive, with lower-cost ones going for around $1,000. Some of them are for home use by heart patients, but others are meant for public use in malls, airports and business offices.

The American Heart Association estimates that perhaps 20,000 lives could be saved each year if AEDs were more readily available. Don’t think that if your office is all Gen-Y that heart attacks can’t happen there. They’re less likely, of course, but the kinds of heart attacks AEDs deal with aren’t age-specific, and can strike anyone, of any age.

Thanks to some huge leaps in their capabilities and reliability, AEDs are appearing everywhere nowadays. Police carry them in their cars. Government offices may be mandated to have them. Dentists often have them handy, too. In some states, particular types of businesses are required to have them. In Indiana, they’re required for health clubs, for example.

Although, on TV shows, any drawn-out beep and a flat line on a monitor is a cue for the defibrillator to be swung into action, in reality only particular kinds of heart problems are candidates for an AED shock. The AED is for two conditions: ventricular fibrillation (VF) and ventricular tachycardia (VT). In VF, the heart isn’t beating rhythmically, but writhing, because the electrical signals that control the regulated contractions in the heart muscle have gotten scrambled. In VT, the heart is still in rhythm, but the rhythm is fluttery and fast, rather than powerful. In both cases, the momentary cure is to pass an electrical current across the patient’s chest to reset the signals.

Naturally, someone not trained in medicine can’t recognize what’s AED-worthy and what’s not, so the AED does the determination for you. The big professional defibrillators aren’t so obliging, needing considerable training and experience to operate. Today’s AED carries that training and experience around with it.

When you think someone may need a shock, call the paramedics, start cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, fetch the AED, and put it down next to the patient. You then open a container on the AED that contains pads and wires, and apply the two pads to the patient’s skin. One goes on the chest itself, while the other goes along the rib cage on the opposite side. They have to go against bare skin, so you may have to cut away clothing.

With the pads in place, you turn on the AED and it does the rest. The AED analyzes the heart’s signals and decides whether the patient needs a shock. If it concludes a shock is warranted, it tells you to deliver the shock, then it monitors again. You have to avoid touching the patient during this time, so the AED isn’t confused and the shock isn’t given to you instead of the patient.

On TV, a patient blasted with a good defibrillator shock twitches and jumps. Don’t expect it to happen with the AED. The effect is rather gentle, actually. It’s also nearly foolproof. If the patient doesn’t need the shock, the AED can’t be induced to give one. There isn’t a manual override. The unit operates on batteries, so even if the power goes off, the AED will function. Many of them have voice commands that lead the neophyte Good Samaritan through the entire process.

As is often true about newly developed technology, the law is still catching up to the AED. In many places, Good Samaritan laws will cover anyone who needs to use one to save a life, but it’s worth checking with your lawyer to make sure you’re not going to incur any liability by having an AED around.

Getting an AED is usually an easy matter. The American Red Cross can help you get one and then train your people on how to operate and maintain it. If you’re already confident with AEDs, you can just buy one directly. The site AED Brands (www.aedbrands.com) lists seven AED companies with units for sale. One of them, from Defibtech (www.defibtech.com), is also available from Office Depot (www.officedepot.com).

AED Brands likewise offers guides and accessories, as well as a short test to see if an AED is worth it for your office. Among other considerations, it asks if you’re distant from medical care, and whether someone in your office is willing and able to be responsible for the AED. AEDs are nearly impossible to misuse, but some training is still helpful. And just imagine the customer loyalty you’ll enjoy if you save that customer’s life.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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