Research shows that therapeutic hypothermia -- in which the body is cooled to about 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit -- protects the brain against damage caused by lack of blood flow and oxygenation. The treatment has also been shown to improve survival.
Therapeutic hypothermia is credited with saving the lives of a growing number of patients who suffer cardiac arrest outside hospitals.
"We know it's being used in patients who went into cardiac arrest in their homes, at work or anywhere else outside of a hospital, but little was known about how often it's used in patients who arrest in the hospital," study author Dr. Mark Mikkelsen, an assistant professor in the pulmonology, critical care and allergy division at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a school news release.
"We found that even though most hospitals have the capability to treat these patients with therapeutic hypothermia, it's not being used," Mikkelsen added. "And even when it was used, in nearly half the cases, the correct target temperature was not being achieved."
The researchers looked at data from more than 67,000 patients who went into cardiac arrest at more than 530 U.S. hospitals between 2003 and 2009. Only 2 percent of them received therapeutic hypothermia.
"Several factors could explain this," Mikkelsen said. "There is little data, which is often conflicting, to support its use for patients in the hospital, and we have national guidelines that only have clinicians considering its use, which may lead to hesitation and lack of institutional protocol."
Many of the 210,000 hospital patients who suffer cardiac arrest each year in the United States may not be candidates for therapeutic hypothermia because they have other serious conditions or are terminally ill.
The study was published in the June issue of the journal Critical Care Medicine.
The American Heart Association has more about cardiac arrest.