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What a defibrillator is and how it works

Defibrillators are literally vital. They are powered by electricity and allow many people to go on living after cardiac arrest. Here’s how to handle them.

Every year, more than 30.000 people die in Spain due to cardiac arrest. Early, immediate care is crucial to increase the survival rate from these events.

To help all of us, every member of the public should know how to recognise a defibrillator and feel able to use it if necessary and if there is no medical professional in the immediate vicinity.


What a defibrillator is and what it is used for

It is a device designed to deliver an electric charge to the heart and allow it to recover its normal function.

It is equipped with sensors that analyse the heart’s rhythm and indicate the right time to apply a charge and at what intensity.

This device is able to restore a normal cardiac rhythm by applying energy to the heart through the chest wall.

If a patient has a heart attack, the reaction time available for treating him or her and reversing the situation is minimal. This is why defibrillators are essential for saving many lives.

“The defibrillator identifies the moment when an electrical charge must be applied to the heart and the required intensity.”

How is a defibrillator handled?

It is not particularly difficult to use one of these devices, but to really help save lives everyone should have prior training.

However, these are the basic steps for operating a defibrillator:

1. Turn it on.

2. Position the electrodes following the diagram on the device: on the right collarbone, the left side of the chest and beneath the armpit.

3. The device will decide whether or not to deliver a charge based on myocardial activity. While this is happening, the patient must not be touched because this could hinder the process.

There is no single answer to the question of who can use a defibrillator because it depends on the specific law in each Autonomous Community. In some cases, only a person with approved training can handle the device. In other cases, however, priority is given to cardioprotection and the need for effective reaction in the event of cardiac arrest.

In both Asturias and Andalusia, these devices can only be used by people with approved CPR training or health professionals. If an intervention is to be carried out outside a medical centre, you must get in touch with the medical emergency service.

The law in Catalonia, the Basque country, Madrid, Valencia and the Canary Islands is more flexible and states that if no one with medical or CPR knowledge is present, anyone can use the defibrillator, provided they have already called 112. In such cases, the survival chain range of action increases, offering more opportunities to treat people with heart problems.

Remember that defibrillators for public use tell the user what to do. Some defibrillators are always permanently connected to 112 in order to allow the emergency services to tell you how to help save a life.

Precautions to be taken before using a defibrillator essentially amount to finding a quiet spot without interference that could affect its use. It is also often advisable to undo clothing and remove hair to ensure that the device works properly.

Some defibrillation devices also require you to specify whether the patient is a child or an adult.

“In Asturias and Andalusia, only professionals or people with special training can use a defibrillator.”

Where is it compulsory for defibrillators to be present?

Although each Autonomous Community has its own laws, such devices are generally installed in public transport vehicles, big shopping centres, sports stadia and places where a lot of people congregate. It is also advisable to install them in businesses.

In Spain, it is calculated that there is an average of 3 defibrillators per 10.000 inhabitants. This rate is really low (5 times lower than in the United Kingdom, for example) Spain is lagging behind the rest of the European Union when it comes to installing these devices.

The leading countries for the installation of this type of device are Japan, with 25 per 10.000 inhabitants, and France, with nearly 20 for the same number of inhabitants.

Apart from the fact that few defibrillation devices are installed, little information is available on their locations and they are poorly signposted.

Spain has a long way to go when it comes to installing defibrillators, devices that use electricity to save many lives in a few minutes. Remember that the time it takes to find this type of treatment is vital for survival when people have heart problems.

“Spain has far fewer defibrillators per inhabitant than other European countries.”
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