What You Don’t Know Could Kill You

Posted: September 8, 2015    |   Gretchen Kirkwood

During the lunch hour in a well-regarded restaurant in Southeastern PA last Spring, a close friend of my mother collapsed unconscious onto the floor. A nurse at a nearby table sprang into action, began CPR and called to staff to bring an AED. However, the restaurant didn’t have an AED on site. 9-1-1 was called but it took 17 minutes before help arrived. The paramedics placed their AED on the chest of the fallen friend, were able to re-start her heart, and they took her away in the ambulance. Unfortunately, because it had been 17 minutes without sufficient oxygenated blood to her brain she was pronounced brain dead several hours later.

When speaking with the restaurant manager afterwards, it was clear that they had little knowledge regarding the nature and frequency of cardiac arrest. Initially, I attributed this to the small size of the restaurant (it was not a major chain). However, shortly afterwards, I met with a large national restaurant group, and their corporate risk manager stated that they had had just thirty 9-1-1 calls across all of their 3,000+ restaurants in the preceding year.

This comment struck me as statistically improbable (if not impossible), and it occurred to me that maybe something was amiss with restaurant-level incident tracking.

So…following the meeting, we tapped our Medical Board to pull statistics for six of the brand’s restaurants in the area surrounding Camden, NJ. What we found was truly eye-opening. In the six restaurant sites that we studied, there were seventy-nine 9-1-1 calls over a 12-month span… seventeen of which (or more than 20%) were Advanced Life Support (ALS) calls. ALS calls are more likely to be cardiac in nature, and some estimates indicate that upwards of 50% to 60% of ALS calls are cardiac-driven.

Appreciating that the results may have been an aberration due to the small sample, we subsequently investigated several other large restaurant groups in the same geographic region (also looking at a 12-month span). Here is what we found:


On average, the above group experienced roughly seven 9-1-1 calls per restaurant during the sample period, fully one-third of which were ALS. Benchmarking on an assumption that 50% of ALS calls are cardiac-related, this yields an average of one cardiac incident per restaurant every 12 months.

Obviously, the above provides a strong indication that cardiac events are transpiring at a high rate in restaurants, despite a general perception to the contrary. There are a range of factors that may account for this disparity – from reduced visibility on the nature of events / outcomes due to HIPPA-imposed confidentiality to restaurants serving as “landmarks” for people calling EMS. Nevertheless, the above do seem to call for a fresh look at restaurants’ incident reporting mechanisms in order to improve the ability to proactively reduce risk for patrons and restaurant employees alike.

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