Paramedic Awareness: The risk of not adhering to procedures when determining life extinct

Currently, there is no legal definition of death although, it is generally taken to mean the ‘irreversible loss of capacity for consciousness combined with the irreversible loss of capacity to breathe.’[1] 

As determined by the British Medical Association, a Paramedic has the responsibility to confirm deaths within the community. The Recognition of Life Extinct (ROLE) protocol provides guidance for Paramedics on the holistic aspects of cardiac arrest management.   

There are three circumstances in which life extinct can be performed by ambulance clinicians[2]. All of the following criterions below must be confirmed independently and if possible, by two clinicians before a formal determination that the patient is life extinct.

  • A condition unequivocally associated with death is observed. These are:

    • Decapitation
    • Massive cranial and cerebral destruction   
    • Hemicorporectomy or similar massive injury
    • Decomposition/putrefaction
    • Incineration
    • Hypostasis       
    • Rigor mortis  
  • A patient is in cardiac arrest with no evidence of CPR in the last 15 minutes AND no suspicion of drowning, hypothermia, poisoning/overdose, pregnancy AND an asystolic rhythm is observed for 30 seconds;   
  • If the patient is in asystole following 20 minutes of Advanced Life Support EXCEPT in cases of drowning, hypothermia, poisoning/overdose and pregnancy. 

If the criteria to determine life extinct is not met and there is no other logical reason to withhold resuscitation (for example, danger to the paramedic) then resuscitation should be commenced with a view to offering the patient the best possible chance of survival. 

A per the  Ambulance Services Clinical Practice Guidelines, the ‘substantial chance’ and ‘real prospect’ of ‘avoiding death’ is to say that had a full resuscitation protocol have been followed then the chance of survival, survival with a good neurological outcome and survival to discharge from hospital are significantly reduced the longer a person is in cardiac arrest and the longer it is before all the steps in the chance of survival are achieved.  

Ultimately, if clinicians can confidentially adhere to JRCALC’s Recognition of Life Extinct, this will provide justifications to determine when a resuscitation attempt is inappropriate.