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Good Samaritans are hard to find, study says

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A woman collapses on the street, clutching her side. Do you stop to help her?

Like me, you may be thinking “Of course I would.” But data from real medical emergencies suggest that very, very few of us actually stop to offer assistance.

Fewer than 3 in every 100 people experiencing a medical emergency in a public place receive help from a bystander, according to a new analysis in the American Journal of Public Health. And help for African-Americans and people living in the poorest neighborhoods was even less likely.

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The findings are a “huge surprise,” says study author Erin York Cornwell, a sociologist at Cornell University. Two previous studies found that bystanders step in to perform CPR on heart attack victims in 29 to 45 percent of situations, so York Cornwell expected individuals would be at least that likely to offer help in other medical situations.

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She was wrong. York Cornwell, along with graduate student Alex Currit, analyzed data on medical emergencies from around the nation, collected in a central database called the National Emergency Medical Services Information System. They narrowed the entries to 22,487 patients who had suffered non-traffic-related medical emergencies on public streets and sidewalks in 2011.

Each report indicated whether a bystander offered help before medical personnel arrived and if so, the type of help provided.

“There was a huge range of forms of support,” says York Cornwell, from offering aspirin or juice to putting pressure on a wound or stabilizing a neck.

Yet a shockingly small number of people received help.

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Regardless of the type of injury or illness, just 1 in 24 Caucasians was assisted by a bystander. It was worse for people in minority groups: Just 1 in 55 African-Americans received help from a bystander. And this was not because no one was around: People in the most densely populated counties were least likely to get help, the authors found.

That reluctance to intervene may be due to uncertainty of how to help, or fear of engaging with strangers, says York Cornwell. “People simply might not want to interact with someone they don’t know.”

She believes part of the problem — and solution — is neighborhood dynamics. In a previous study, neighborhoods with vibrant social institutions, such as churches and senior centers, tended to be more supportive during a dangerous heat wave, and residents fared well. Poorer neighborhoods often lack these institutions and there is a high resident turnover so people tend not to know one another, and therefore are reluctant to help.

“We need to go into neighborhoods and understand how people relate to each other,” says York Cornwell. “Then we can figure out where a sense of cohesion comes from and how we can generate it.”