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Kudos to WSJ for giving thorough look at ‘Heimlich alternative’ devices for choking victims


5 Star

Can New Devices Match Heimlich to Stop Choking?

Our Review Summary

Close Up Of Woman Demonstrating Heimlich ManeuverThis is a story that looks at two devices that purport to be alternatives to the Heimlich maneuver for choking victims.

While the story doesn’t fully answer the question posed by its own headline, it makes an admirable presentation that is clear and balanced, checking off all of our criteria. In particular, the story establishes the cost and availability of the devices and interviews several independent sources.

However, since the devices might be offered as an alternative to the Heimlich maneuver, some discussion on their ease-of-use would have been nice, but is missing from the discussion, as well as what kind of safety testing these devices do or do not have to undergo compared to other emergency medical devices.


Why This Matters

A widely accepted practice to help choking victims is the Heimlich maneuver. The article discusses two devices currently on the market that claim to provide backup options should the Heimlich maneuver fail. The devices have not been tested in people–except in cadavers–and may not be effective if used by untrained personnel.

Editor’s note: A change was made in the first sentence of Why This Matters. “The standard accepted practice…” now reads as “A widely accepted practice…” As a reader pointed out, there are several evidence-based approaches for choking first aid, including back blows and chest thrusts.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


The article provides prices on both devices:

Both the Dechoker, $89.95, and the LifeVac, $69.95, have a plastic mask that provides a seal over the mouth and nose while suction is provided.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The article carefully reminds readers that both devices need further testing. Under “Verdict,” the article reads

So far there haven’t been any scientific publications detailing lives saved with the LifeVac or another device, from Dechoker LLC, of Salisbury, N.C.

In particular, we understand from the article that

On the market less than two years, neither LifeVac nor Dechoker has published evidence of successful uses in humans.

The successes of LifeVac have been studied only in cadavers where success was observed “49 out of 50 times.”

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


The article explains possible harms from using the devices by soliciting opinions from the Heimlichs, the namesake of the famous Heimlich maneuver:

“Any action that delays use of the Heimlich maneuver or complicates the rescue can be deadly.”

To balance this perspective, the article also discusses the use of these devices as a backup to other standard procedures:

The LifeVac and the Dechoker are both intended to be used if standard rescue treatments fail, the companies say. One person can get the device while another person starts the Heimlich maneuver, suggests Sean Pittman, Dechoker’s director of strategic development.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The article displays a solid grasp of the quality of the evidence. In particular, the reader is made aware that the LifeVac device has only been tested in cadavers; neither device has been rigorously tested in humans. The few successful cases reported in humans are so far anecdotal in nature.

We do wish the story had explored what kind of safety testing these devices must undergo before going on store shelves. Considering the lack of evidence showing they work, are they held to a lower standard than other emergency medical devices?

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The statistic on choking is reported in a factual manner without any disease mongering:

Nearly 5,000 people a year die from choking in the U.S., according to the nonprofit National Safety Council.

It would have been even more helpful if the story had explored whether people who died from choking received the Heimlich maneuver and if so, was it inadequate? That would give us a better sense as to the need for this device. (We realize that’s a lot to ask!)

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The article does an excellent job presenting opinions from both people involved in the companies and independent stakeholders outside of the companies.  These independent sources increased the impartiality of the news story.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The standard treatment for choking is the Heimlich maneuver. Representatives from Dechoker want to present the device as a fail-safe to the Heimlich maneuver.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


It sounds like the devices are already available:

On the market less than two years, neither LifeVac nor Dechoker has published evidence of successful uses in humans.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


It seems like one particular novelty of the device is the demographic it targets:

Early adopters of the devices include people with chronic diseases at high risk for choking.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


It does not appear that the article solely relies on a news release as several independent sources were interviewed.

Total Score: 10 of 10 Satisfactory


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