What is Advanced Life Support (ALS)?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Advanced life support or ALS is a series of medical interventions which are used to sustain life in a patient. ALS may be applied on scene at an emergency, or used in a hospital environment. Medical practitioners like nurses and doctors generally learn ALS as part of their training, and they may be required to periodically recertify to confirm that they are keeping up with the latest procedures and research. Paramedics and first responders can also receive advanced life support training.

Advanced life support may be given at the scene of an emergency.
Advanced life support may be given at the scene of an emergency.

In advanced life support, the medical personnel assisting the patient have a range of tools to choose from, including medications, defibrillators, and medical equipment which can be used for airway management. The responders also have the training to know what to use, and when. The groundwork of ALS is basic life support or BLS, in which the airway, breathing, and circulation are secured, but ALS offers more treatment options, and a better chance of survival for the patient.

Rapid intervention is often key in medical emergencies, especially in situations where the airway or circulation are compromised. If a patient's heart stops, for example, it is urgent to restart the heart, no matter what else might be wrong with the patient, because he or she will not live long otherwise. When provided on scene or in an ambulance, ALS can increase a patient's chances, and it can also be a critical tool in hospitals. In a hospital environment, ALS may be needed for critical patients coming into the emergency department or patients in the intensive care unit or postsurgical unit.

Providers who offer advanced life support have to juggle a number of concerns. They cannot offer surgical interventions, and they usually lack access to the time and equipment for medical imaging studies and other diagnostic tools. Therefore, they often lack the tools they need to figure out why a patient is in critical condition, focusing solely on how to alleviate the patient's condition. The goal is to keep the patient functioning, and hopefully increase the stability of the patient so that his or her medical issues can be addressed. For bystanders, advanced life support can be confusing, because the responders may focus on issues which seem less critical; for example, a technician might monitor the patient's heart rate and respiration while ignoring an obviously broken arm.

Many providers who are certified to perform ALS must attend workshops periodically to be reminded about the procedures which are used in advanced life support. They may also be asked to take tests to confirm that they are capable of providing ALS safely. Some people also receive specialized training in things like pediatric advanced life support (PALS).

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


If you are ACLS certified, do you also have to be BLS certified? I believe the American Heart Association says you don't but my facility says we do.

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