How Effective Is CPR, Really? TV Won’t Tell You


September 5, 2015

A scene involving CPR may be a great way to turn a sitcom schlub into a hero, but it turns out this lifesaving technique may not be depicted accurately on TV. 

A new study from the University of Southern California Davis (USC Davis) found that the rate of survival after cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on TV may be much greater than it is in real life — and this could produce potentially hazardous health care decisions among the public.

“Most people have no knowledge of actual CPR survival and thus make medical care decisions for themselves and family members based on inaccurate assumptions,” said lead study author Susan Enguidanos, PhD, MPH, an associate professor at the USC Davis School of Gerontology in Los Angeles, in a press release.

CPR is a lifesaving technique useful in many emergencies, including heart attack or drowning, in which a patient’s breathing or heartbeat has stopped. The procedure involves applying pressure to the chest to regain the heart’s rhythm. It’s often accompanied by assisting a victim with breathing using a mouth-to-mouth technique.

CPR can keep oxygenated blood flowing to the brain and other vital organs until medical treatment can restore a normal heart rhythm. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone be trained in CPR.

Dr. Enguidanos and team looked at 91 episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House” (two medical dramas) and found that 70 percent of characters who needed CPR survived — with 50 percent allowed to leave the hospital afterward.

In real life, however, only about 37 percent of patients survive CPR, and only 13 percent achieve long-term recovery.

Dr. Enguidanos and team also looked at 46 instances of CPR that aired on TV in 2010 and 2011, recording the background of the characters, survival rate and why the characters needed the procedure.

While 60 percent of CPR patients in real life were over age 65, CPR patients on TV tended to range in age from 18 to 65.

While trauma — such as a car accidents — led to about 40 percent of the TV CPR cases, it actually only accounts for about 2 percent of real-life cases.

“Inaccurate TV portrayal of CPR survival rates may misinform viewers and influence care decisions made during serious illness and at end of life,” Dr. Enguidanos said.

According to these researchers, 42 percent of older adults receive health care information from TV.

This study was published in August in the journal Resuscitation.

Information on funding sources and conflicts of interest was not available at the time of publication.


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