Travelers play valuable role assisting crew in common medical emergencies on flights

Medical emergencies during commercial airline travel can be a frightening experience, but most situations are well-treated by other passengers and flight attendants, in collaboration with consulting physicians on the ground. A University of Pittsburgh study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine found that doctors, nurses and other medical professionals on the aircraft helped to treat sick fellow passengers in three-fourths of the emergencies studied.

Led by Christian Martin-Gill, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of emergency medicine, the study examined records of in-flight medical calls from five domestic and international airlines to UPMC's STAT-MD Communications Center, a 24-hour, physician-directed medical command center, from Jan. 1, 2008, through Oct. 31, 2010. Although not required to by the (FAA), many airlines use a medical communications facility to consult with physicians on the ground. STAT-MD handled 11,920 in-flight medical calls during the study period. The most common in-flight problems reported were syncope (fainting) or near-syncope, respiratory symptoms, nausea or vomiting, and cardiac symptoms.

Physician passengers provided medical assistance in nearly half of those calls, according to the researchers. Other medical professionals, such as nurses and emergency medical technicians, provided help in another 28 percent of the calls. Flights were diverted to alternate destinations because of medical concerns in only 7.3 percent of the incidents.

Most of the passengers who were treated in-flight had . According to data for nearly 11,000 of those patients, 25.8 percent were transported to a hospital by ; 8.6 percent were admitted, and 0.3 percent died, either on board the aircraft or upon transport to the hospital. The most common causes for admission to a hospital were stroke, respiratory and .

The study found that most calls could be managed by the flight attendants, who are trained in emergency protocols and have access to an FAA-required emergency medical kit, along with medical volunteers in the majority of cases. In these cases, ground-based physician consultants provided additional guidance, including use of specific medications in the kit, and assisting the pilot and crew in making decisions regarding need for diversion of the aircraft.

"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," said Dr. Martin-Gill.

The researchers suggest physicians and others obtain a basic knowledge and awareness of the resources available to them in this unfamiliar and cramped setting to be effective volunteers during an in-flight emergency.

"Commercial air travel is generally safe, and in-flight deaths are rare," said Dr. Martin-Gill. "We hope to look more closely at the most common conditions and which ones require follow-up care so we can better tailor treatment recommendations for passengers."

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Research identifies in-flight emergencies

Jan 23, 2009

Fainting is the most common in-flight medical emergency. Research recently published in BioMed Central's open access journal Critical Care details the number, type and frequency of medical emergencies on board two airlin ...

Recommended for you

Study reveals state of crisis in Canadian foster care system

Oct 24, 2014

A new study of foster care in Canada led by a researcher at Western University reveals a shrinking number of foster care providers are available across the country to care for a growing number of children with increasingly ...

Researchers prove the benefits of persimmons for diet

Oct 24, 2014

Alba Mir and Ana Domingo, researchers from the Department of Analytical Chemistry of the University of Valencia, under the supervision of professors Miguel de la Guardia and Maria Luisa Cervera, from the same department, ...

Hand blenders used for cooking can emit persistent chemicals

Oct 24, 2014

Eight out of twelve tested models of hand blenders are leaking chlorinated paraffins when used according to the suppliers' instructions. This is revealed in a report from Stockholm University where researchers analyzed a ...

User comments