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What is a Portable Defibrillator?

By J.M. Densing
Updated: May 17, 2024

A portable defibrillator is a lifesaving device that administers an electric shock to a person's heart to help it regain a normal rhythm when he or she is in sudden cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting. It is also known as an automatic external defibrillator or AED, and its availability in public places is increasing. These devices are usually automated to a high degree, with the ability to diagnose the patient and deliver the correct treatment or to withhold inappropriate treatment. The portable defibrillator usually talks the user through the entire process with step-by-step instructions, allowing the device to be generally used safely with little to no training, although basic training is preferred.

A portable defibrillator is generally a self-contained unit weighing less than five pounds (2.2 kg) that is used in non-hospital settings. It has an electrocardiogram (ECG) for monitoring heartbeat and software complete with automated voice prompts to analyze the patient's condition and instruct the operator in use, along with a shock generator. These components are all enclosed in a case with buttons for operation, a display, speaker, leads, and electrode pads.

If a person has collapsed and is unresponsive without a pulse or respiration, treatment with a portable defibrillator may be attempted. Upon activation, the unit will ask the operator to confirm these symptoms, and then instruct the operator to place the electrodes on the heart attack victim's chest. The unit will then instruct all others in the area to stay clear of the while the unit's software analyzes the heart activity.

If defibrillator treatment is inappropriate, the unit will halt the process, but it can still be used to monitor the patient's condition with the ECG. If treatment with shock is indicated, the unit will instruct the operator to make sure the area is clear and deliver the electric shock by pressing a button. After the shock has been administered, the unit will analyze the patient's condition and direct the operator in further treatment if necessary. Once the patient is stabilized, he or should be brought to the nearest hospital immediately for further evaluation.

Portable defibrillator units are becoming increasingly available in public places such as airports, malls, schools, and many other settings. They are designed to be easy to use so that a someone in cardiac distress can be treated immediately without having to be transported to a hospital first. Training is recommended, however, but not required. Studies have shown that prompt treatment with these devices can save lives.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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