Fighting misconceptions: understanding CPR in reality

How many times have you seen someone carrying out CPR on TV or in the movies? And how many times were their actions successful in saving someone’s life? Almost always.

As a nurse, I’m increasingly alarmed by misconceptions about CPR and how often people think it is effective. The basis of these misconceptions is often down to how CPR is depicted on TV, and it can be damaging.

The reality of CPR

Whilst CPR does of course save lives, the chances of its success depends greatly on how well the person is at the time, and how quickly CPR is given. Very few people make a full recovery following CPR and this is something that is not widely understood.

In the UK, fewer than 10% of the people who receive CPR outside of hospital survive. If someone has a chronic or long-term condition, or terminal illness, then CPR is even less likely to be successful.

Even when CPR is successful at restarting a person’s heart and breathing, it may leave them with irreversible brain damage — dramatically affecting their quality of life.

When methods like chest compressions are used, significant side effects can often occur — including severe bruising, broken ribs and punctured lungs. If the person receiving CPR is frail, the risk is even greater.

Why this matters to me

Unrealistic expectations of CPR can wrongly shape people’s attitudes and, ultimately, their decision making.

I was recently having a conversation with a woman about her Advance Decision to Refuse Treatment (also known as a Living Will). During our chat, she clearly outlined how important it was to refuse life-sustaining treatment if there was little hope of recovery. She loathed the idea of living a restricted life with limited or no independence. At nearly 75 she was fairly fit but lived with underlying health conditions.

Despite being so clear in her concerns regarding life-sustaining treatment, she said she would, however, want CPR because “of course I’d like my heart to be re-started!” She had the genuine belief that it was that simple, and that likely to work.

In this conversation, being clear about the realities of CPR and the likelihood of its success was well received. But, this is not always the case. I feel there’s a distinct need to dispel the unrealistic ideas people have about CPR when making such important decisions.

One of the important aspects of my role is to help people make their own choices, and to support them to record their wishes in a legally binding way. It’s important that I strike the right balance between supporting these choices and making sure people understand the decisions they are making, and the effect they could have on their quality of life.

Making the right choice for you

It’s vital that people understand their rights to consent to and refuse treatment, and that they can do this in advance. But, it’s also important that people have the information they need to make the decisions that are right for them.

To understand the benefits and possible disadvantages of different medical treatments just ask — you can talk to your GP, practice nurse or call Compassion in Dying on 0800 999 2434.