FEB 28, 2018 6:29 AM PST

Practical Tips for Physicians on Airplanes During an Emergency

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker

In the event of a medical emergency in the middle of an airplane flight, a physician or other medical professional on board may be called to intervene. From the Canadian Medical Association and the University of Toronto, researchers want to be sure that those volunteers are prepared for an emergency situation at 36,000 feet in the air.

Researchers estimate that there is an in-flight medical emergency per every 604 flights.

A new article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal provides a practical resource for any medical professional who is asked to lend a hand during an in-flight medical emergency. Researchers evaluate the available medical equipment onboard two of Canada’s major airlines: Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd.

"If the health professional offers their expertise, they may have to manage an unfamiliar clinical scenario, in a foreign and limited environment without knowledge of the available resources,” explained Dr. Alun Ackery from the University of Toronto. “This article provides practical tips to inform physicians about what to expect if they are in this situation."

In a 2013 Western Journal of Emergency Medicine study, researchers concluded that physicians should be aware of the most common in-flight medical incidents, the available resources onboard a typical airplane, and how to communicate with the flight crew in the event that they are called upon to volunteer their expertise during an in-flight medical emergency. Ackery wants to do just that.

The new article is designed to help prepare medical professionals for any type of in-flight medical emergency they might encounter. Researchers have seen an increase in in-flight medical emergencies, partly because there are simply more people flying every year. Another explanation is that stress from lower oxygen humidity levels only increases as flights get longer.

Calculating the exact number of in-flight medical emergencies is difficult, but experts estimate that one emergency per every 604 flights is a likely statistic. The cause of such an emergency is most often related to lightheadedness/loss of consciousness, respiratory symptoms, nausea or vomiting, cardiac symptoms, or seizures. Physicians are the most likely to respond, followed by flight attendants alone and then by nurses and paramedics.

“We’re lucky to have the skills and the training we do, so we should use those skills to help people,” said Dr. Joshua Tepper, a family physician and CEO of Health Quality Ontario.

In addition to preparing medical professionals with a knowledge of the available resources on an airplane, Ackery and others recommend that volunteers be prepared to work as a team with the flight staff and potentially other volunteers, with clearly assigned roles and appropriate recognition of a professional’s skills and capabilities. Additionally, volunteers should recognize that flight attendants are the most familiar with their surroundings and the available resources, and they can talk with the pilots in the cockpit if an emergency landing is needed.

"The incidence of in-flight medical emergencies continues to rise and it is likely that many physicians will hear a call to attend to a fellow passenger,” Ackery said. “Knowing what to expect may help physicians be better prepared the next time that fateful call goes out at 36,000 feet.”

Source: Canadian Medical Association Journal, CMAJ News

About the Author
  • I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com.
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