HUNDREDS of lives could be saved if family doctors were equipped with defibrillators, electronic devices which send an electric shock to the heart of someone in a sudden cardiac arrest.
New research published today showed the results of an experiment which involved giving 500 GPs a defibrillator.
They were also given proper training on how to use the device and shown how to deal with sudden cardiac arrest by using it to shock the heart into stopping an extremely rapid, irregular heartbeat.
The findings, published in the Health Research Board's Picture of Health, a collection of new studies, showed that, if all GPs were given the devices, it would mean an increase in the numbers of people who survive cardiac arrest.
Around 3,000 to 5,000 people die annually from sudden cardiac events, some of which might not be fatal if they were treated on time. The findings from the MERIT project involved giving the machines to selected doctors over five years.
Prof Gerard Bury, Professor of General Practice at University College Dublin, who led the study said: "We know how to fix ventricular fibrillation, but fixing it is completely and utterly time-dependent.
"Nationally, survival rates for a sudden cardiac arrest if it happens out of hospital are one in 20."
"But this research shows that the availability and proper use of defibrillators by GPs increases these survival rates three or four-fold," he added.
"Fundamentally, what we have demonstrated is the extraordinary success of the implementation of a scheme like MERIT.
"And predominantly the events that we have recorded have been in small towns and rural Ireland where, traditionally, outcomes have been worse."
He pointed out that the cost of around €4,000 per GP for equipment and training must be seen as a positive investment in terms of saving lives.
"This sort of structured intervention and support, allied with the strength of general practice, can make a huge difference at local level. Every GP in the country needs a defibrillator," he said.
Health Research Board chief executive Enda Connolly said: "The Government's investment in research must be recognised as a vital step to encourage innovation and help reinvigorate the economy.
"Researchers must see this investment as a vote of confidence in their ability to deliver change and embrace the opportunity to continue to demonstrate that the work that they do has real impact."
He said that in past few years, the Health Research Board has taken a strategic decision to focus our funding on research that has a positive impact on people's health, patient care and the health service.