Saturday, June 4, 2016

Always Depend on the Kindness of Strangers? Nope

A medical emergency can strike anywhere at anytime. In fact Americans make 36 million calls to emergency medical services (EMS) every year.

If and when an urgent medical issue arises, you better hope that you have someone around who you can rely on, because strangers aren’t much help at all in a crisis, according to a study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health.

A mere 2.5 percent of people, or one in 39 cases, received assistance from strangers before EMS personnel arrived on the scene, found a pair of sociologists at Cornell University.

For their study, the team analyzed data from a cohort of 22,487 patients pulled from the 2011 National Emergency Medical Services Information System (NEMSIS), and combined that with socioeconomic and census data to assess various incidents on the county level.

The results showed a startling disparity in assistance received across racial lines. Caucasians were twice as likely to receive help than African-Americans, with the former receiving aid 4.2 percent of the time and the latter just 1.8 percent.

Bystanders in lower-income countries were less likely to less likely to lend a hand to a stranger during a medical emergency. In fact, those living in the most economically disadvantaged counties were the least likely to receive bystander support.

“Inequalities in bystander support across millions of medical emergencies each year in the United States may contribute to persistent racial and socioeconomic disparities in health,” the authors conclude.

Bystander support can dramatically improve patient outcomes. Performing CPR on an individual suffering from cardiac arrest can double that person’s chances of survival, the authors note, but only around a quarter of patients get that sort of help.

Using the Heimlech manuever when someone is choking, applying pressure to a bleeding wound, attaching a splint or assisting with medications require little more than basic first aid training. But even without knowing basic first aid, bystanders can still pitch in by providing water, a blanket or a cold compress.

Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, individuals living in less-densely populated counties were more likely to receive help from bystanders than though living in densely populated areas. But this makes sense in the context of the phenomenon known as the bystander effect.

The bystander effect occurs in a situation where passerbys ignore an individual in an emergency as a result of the presence of others. First conceptualized in the 1960s following the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, who was stabbed to death while observers and passerbys did nothing to help, the bystander effect creates a sense of diffused responsibility among the onlookers that prevents any one individual from acting.

Even if a group is slower to act the larger it gets, as suggested by the latest study and shown in past research, it only takes one person to make a difference in a crisis, potentially saving the life of another.

Al-Khatib, Talal. 2016. “Always Depend on the Kindness of Strangers? Nope”. Discovery News. Posted: April 18, 2016. Available online:

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