Airline Travelers Can Become Invaluable Medical Assistants In Flight
May 31, 2013

Airline Travelers Can Become Invaluable Medical Assistants During Flights

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

“Is there a doctor on board this plane?” is more than just a phrase quipped in movies. There are times, in fact, when a medical professional could be needed to treat passengers who are in-flight.

Ever curious, one University of Pittsburgh professor set out to find how often doctors and air travelers are needed for in-flight emergencies and how well passengers turned patients fare after being treated on board. After poring through data of in-flight emergencies, the study found that medical professionals are on-call for three-fourths of all emergencies in the air. This study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

“We wanted to provide a description of the type of emergencies commonly treated on an aircraft, identify the outcomes of these patients and provide an understanding of the treatment capabilities available on the aircraft in the medical kit and through experts on the ground,” Christian Martin-Gill, MD, MPH, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Pitt, said in a statement.

When a passenger experiences a medical emergency while on a flight the flight crew will often make a call to a medical facility on the ground to consult with a doctor. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) hosts one of these calling stations (called STAT-MD) and from January 1, 2008 to October 31, 2010, the station handled 11,920 in-flight calls.

Dr. Martin-Gill and colleagues examined in-flight calls which came in to STAT-MD during that period. These calls came from five domestic and international airlines and many of them were about passengers who had trouble breathing, were fainting, or experiencing heart problems.

After analyzing the data from these calls, Dr. Martin-Gill found that passenger physicians were on-board for nearly half of the instances which were reported. Other medical professionals, such as nurses and EMTs, were on-board in another 28 percent of the calls.

With all this help available when it comes to air travel, the need to redirect a flight due to medical emergency was rare. According to the UPMC STAT-MD data, only 7.3 percent of incidents required the plane to be diverted to an alternate destination so the in-flight patient could be transported to a medical care facility.

Most patients who experienced some sort of medical emergency while on a plane generally fared well. Out of the more than 11,000 patients who needed to be treated mid-flight, only 25.8 percent of them were transported to an emergency room once grounded. Of these, only 8.6 percent were actually admitted to the hospital, and an even lower 0.3 percent died as a result of their emergency. Dr. Martin-Gill and team found that the majority of patients who needed to be admitted to the hospital once they landed had experienced a stroke, heart attack or other cardiac problem.

Overall, Dr. Martin-Gill claims the flight attendants are well-trained to handle most medical concerns which may arise during flight. The crew has been trained to handle most emergencies and have easy access to FAA-required emergency medical kits.

According to the data, these attendants are also statistically more likely to also have the help of a medical professional if they need an extra hand. Even when a doctor is not on-board, flight crews still have the option of consulting a doctor on the ground through a service similar to UPMC´s STAT-MD.