All Canadians should respond to sudden cardiac arrest by giving chest compressions, say physicians who called for CPR training to be required in high school.

The Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians released a position statement on bystander CPR or cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Thursday in Ottawa.

About 60 per cent of cardiac arrests happen outside of a hospital.

"It's always fatal if no quick actions are taken in minutes," said Dr. Christian Vaillancourt, an expert on cardiac arrest resuscitation at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, and one of the lead authors of the statement.

People who suffer cardiac arrest out of hospital are three to four times more likely to survive when they receive CPR from a  a relative, friend or bystander but CPR rates in this country rarely exceed 25 per cent, the group noted.

Life-saving skill

"It must become a moral obligation and a social expectation that bystanders will perform CPR when they witness a cardiac arrest," the statement concluded.

The group's recommendations included:

  • Making CPR education in high schools a prerequisite to earn a high school diploma. In Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, CPR education is currently introduced in Grade 9 or 10.
  • Offering tax exemptions for companies providing certified CPR training courses to employees and to individuals who take similar certified CPR education.
  • Making all ambulance dispatch centres provide CPR instructions to bystanders before paramedics arrive.
  • Creating a coalition of stakeholder groups such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, St. John Ambulance and medical, nursing and paramedic associations to spearhead a national public awareness campaign.

Josh Brandon collapsed on a track field last May in cardiac arrest at the age of 19. Debbie Liska worked at his school and used her CPR training to give him chest compressions until the ambulance arrived about 15 minutes later, effectively saving his life.

"It really hit home a few days after that when I was sitting at school thinking today would have been the day for Josh's funeral," Liska said. "I'm so thankful that we didn't have to do that."

His mother was also so relieved that someone stepped in to do CPR.

"He came around," said Michelle Brandon. "I was amazed, just amazed."

The public awareness campaign should target senior citizens in particular since they represent the population most at risk to witness a cardiac arrest, the group said.

Both the Heart and Stroke Foundation and Paramedic Association of Canada applauded the initiative.

With files from CBC's Vik Adhopia