Survey Shows Why Women Receive CPR Less Frequently Than Men

woman practicing CPR on dummy

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Key Takeaways

  • Women are less likely than men to receive CPR from a bystander in the event of an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, often due to unfounded fears and misconceptions.
  • Laws in most jurisdictions protect bystanders who treat cardiac arrest victims in good faith.
  • Immediate, high-quality CPR is critical to survival and improved long-term outcomes for all individuals with cardiac arrest.

According to a recent survey from the American Heart Association (AHA), men who suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrest in a public location receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) from a bystander 45% of the time. Women, in comparison, receive bystander CPR in only 39% of cases. As a result, men have a 23% higher survival rate.

The AHA surveyed 520 non-healthcare providers. All participants were over the age of 18 and were able to correctly define CPR. The survey asked respondents to rank the following five main themes identified in previous research and apply them to various potential cardiac arrest scenarios:

  • Rescuers are afraid to injure or hurt women.
  • Rescuers might have a misconception that women don’t suffer cardiac arrest.
  • Rescuers are afraid to be accused of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
  • Rescuers have a fear of touching women or that the touch might be inappropriate.
  • Rescuers think that women are “faking it” or being “overdramatic.”

Survey results found that men were most likely to refrain from performing CPR in public for fear of being accused of sexual assault or touching a woman inappropriately. On the other hand, women feared that they might cause physical injury or harm to a cardiac arrest victim. Both genders perceived that cardiac arrest occurs primarily in males or that women may act more dramatically than men in medical crises.

Heart Disease Is a Serious Health Issue for Women

Heart disease is the most common cause of mortality for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accounting for 1 in 5 female deaths.

Gender stereotypes continue to be a barrier to women receiving the cardiac care they need, says Nicole Harkin, MD, board-certified cardiologist and founder of Whole Heart Cardiology.

“There are a lot of concerns that women’s bodies are too frail for CPR, or that they might touch women’s breasts inappropriately on accident,” Harkin says.

Harkin also adds that heart disease impacts both men and women, but “is still considered a male disease.”

“Women are often under-treated or misdiagnosed because there is a misperception that women don’t get heart disease,” Harkin says.

Why Do Some Hesitate to Provide Assistance?

Evolving views of what constitutes appropriate behavior have changed the way many males chose to interact with females.

“It appears from this study that some men may be equating the enforcement of appropriate boundaries with women as some kind of threat to them,” Justin Eisele, a licensed attorney with the Seddiq Law Firm, tells Verywell. “Sexual harassment in the workplace was something that men got away with for far too long. This has changed quite a bit recently. Women are standing up by filing complaints and even filing lawsuits for damages. The public is behind them. The awful irony is that it is costing women their lives.”

Bystander CPR Prevents Death and Improves Outcomes

Immediate, high-quality CPR is crucial to survival and long-term prognosis for both men and women.

“The survival rate of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is quite low, unfortunately, and the most critical intervention is CPR,” Harkin says.

In addition to saving lives, bystander CPR prevents long-term neurological damage when the brain does not receive oxygen during a cardiac arrest.

Could There Be Legal Ramifications to Performing CPR?

Eisele says there is little reason to worry about the legal consequences of providing care to cardiac arrest victims in good faith.

“Sexual offenses require an element of intent,” Eisele says. “I’ve never seen or heard of a case where a cardiac arrest victim prosecuted a bystander for performing CPR. Innocent people are not found guilty in situations like this.”

Eisele says it's important not to overthink whether or not they should perform CPR when someone is in need.

“We want people to perform CPR. We don’t want them thinking, Can I get sued?” he says. “Just because you cannot now touch a woman inappropriately doesn't mean you will be charged with sexual assault if you give a woman CPR.”

How To Improve Outcomes

Allaying public fears about performing CPR requires widespread education and awareness, including:

  • Eliminating barriers to CPR
  • Increasing CPR training rates
  • Making defibrillators widely available in public locations

“We need to educate the general public that heart disease can and does happen in women, and that all individuals—despite age or gender—should receive CPR In event of a cardiac arrest,” Harkin says. "Out-of-hospital CPR is life-saving, and it’s absolutely critical that we address all barriers to it being performed by witnesses. The medical community must work toward eliminating this differential in heart care to improve outcomes for all of our patients."

What This Means For You

If you are willing to act, you can save lives. But it's important to know what you're doing. To become CPR certified, contact your local hospital or national organizations such as the American Red Cross and American Heart Association. Some certifications are available online.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Heart Association. Why people fear performing CPR on women - and what to do about It.

  2. Perman SM, Shelton S, Rice JD, et. al. Abstract 139: understanding why differences in the provision of bystander cpr exist for women versus men: does the sex of the rescuer matter? Cardiology. 2020;142:A139. doi:10.1161/circ.142.suppl_4.139

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women and heart disease.

By Cyra-Lea Drummond, BSN, RN
 Cyra-Lea, BSN, RN, is a writer and nurse specializing in heart health and cardiac care.