Many medical organizations stress the importance of knowing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and acting quickly if someone appears to be in cardiac arrest. But research has shown that less than half of people who have a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital receive CPR.
Now a new study has even more disturbing findings related to CPR: People are less likely to perform it on women than men, especially if the medical emergency happens in a public area.
But ... what? Why? Here's what the findings suggest — and what doctors have to say about them.
What the study says
The study, which was presented at European Emergency Medicine Congress, found that women are less likely than men to receive CPR when they need it.
What are the key findings?
The study analyzed data from medical records of 39,391 patients with an average age of 67 who experienced cardiac arrests outside of a hospital setting in Canada and the United States between 2005 and 2015. The researchers looked at whether a bystander performed CPR and where the medical emergency happened, along with the age and gender of the patient.
The data found that only about half of patients received CPR from a bystander. Of those, women were slightly less likely to be given CPR than men — 52% versus 55%. But the difference was more pronounced when the cardiac arrest happened in a public place, like on the street. In those situations, just 61% of women received the help they needed, compared with 68% of men. The differences in lowered CPR aid were consistent regardless of age.
Sadly, this isn't the first study to find that women are less likely to receive CPR than men. A study from the Resuscitation Science Symposium found that men were 1.23 times more likely to receive bystander CPR in public, and their chance of survival was 23% higher compared with women.
What experts think
The information is shocking, but doctors say it's not entirely surprising. "I have asked people this question on my own, and I've been told by some that they don't know where the [anatomical] landmarks for CPR are due to women having breasts," Dr. Nicole McAllister, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life.
Many people who receive CPR training practice on flat-chested mannequins and learn that CPR should be performed across the breastbone and nipple line, she says. "Because people think of doing CPR in terms of a male-form dummy, some of this doesn't translate well and they don't feel comfortable doing it in the right spot," McAllister says.
But there are likely other issues at play too, women's health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider, tells Yahoo Life. "One reason is a fear of touching another person without consent, especially a woman — this may discourage a bystander to administer CPR to a woman," she says. (This reason came up in 2021 research conducted by the American Heart Association — people reported that they were not comfortable giving CPR over fear of sexual accusations or inappropriate touching.)
"Another possible reason is that many people mistakenly think women are less likely to have a heart attack, and may not realize cardiopulmonary resuscitation is necessary," Wider says. McAllister says she has also heard people say that they think women aren't very likely to experience cardiac arrest.
"Sometimes people are afraid that they're going to hurt the woman by giving them compression," McAllister says. Worth noting: Good Samaritan laws legally protect people who volunteer to help someone in an emergency situation.
Why it matters
CPR is an important tool in helping people who experience cardiac arrest. "CPR can save lives," Wider says. "It dramatically lessens the chance of brain injury and death if it is administered immediately." Fast action is also important — during cardiac arrest, the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating and blood stops flowing to the brain and other organs, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). It can be deadly if it's not treated quickly.
In the event of cardiac arrest, the American Red Cross recommends performing hands-only CPR, which is CPR that doesn't involve breathing for someone. This is how to perform CPR, according to the American Red Cross:
Kneel next to the person, with your knees near the side of their body at chest-height and spread about shoulder-width apart.
Place your hands on the chest. The heel of one hand should be on the center of their chest, with your other hand on top. Interlace your fingers and make sure they're hovering off the chest.
Your shoulders should be directly over your hands, and your elbows should be locked.
Do compressions. Push hard and fast, pressing at least two inches deep with each compression; allow the chest to return to its normal position after each compression. The goal is to do 100 to 120 compressions a minute (There are a bunch of songs that keep this rhythm, including "Staying Alive" by the Bee Gees and Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love.")
You'll need to keep doing compressions to continue pumping blood to the brain and heart until emergency services arrives, McAllister says.
If you see someone who appears to be in cardiac arrest, doctors stress the importance of jumping in to help — regardless of their sex. "It could save a life," Wider says.