First Aid: From Witchdoctors & Religious Knights to Modern Doctors

Medical Author: Barbara K. Hecht, PhD.
Medical Editor: Dennis Lee, MD

Stop ten people in the street and ask them, "What is first aid?" Their responses might range from "It's putting on a Band-Aid" or "It's giving CPR" or "It's calling 911." All of these answers would be appropriate because first aid encompasses the entire gamut of help and medical assistance that someone gives -- not only to an injured person -- but to a person who is sick.

First aid applies to a broad range of medical situations. First aid is not just a set of skills. It also involves the ability to determine the appropriate response to a specific illness or injury. In some cases, the appropriate first aid measure is enough in and of itself -- for example, putting a Band-Aid on a cut or ice on a superficial burn. This type of first aid can be described as self-sufficient.

There is also a broad category in which first aid literally means providing the "first" aid -- initiating a procedure such as CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) or defibrillation for a heart attack -- which will then taken over by medical professionals as soon as they become available. This is classic first aid.

But in other cases, appropriate first aid means that all one can do is to get expert medical aid for the patient as quickly as possible. This type of first aid is the invaluable act of summoning urgent medical assistance.

This however introduces another aspect of first aid. That is how to define the difference between "amateur" and "professional" medical care. Again, an "amateur" or layperson can handle many simple situations such as applying that Band-Aid or ice. But serious injuries or illness require professional medical attention. An "amateur" trained in procedures like CPR or defibrillation may be able to initiate the appropriate action until medical professionals can take over.