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Is there a doctor on board? In-flight medical emergencies

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ABSTRACT

Although not legally required to render assistance in the event of a medical emergency aboard an airplane, physicians have an ethical obligation to do so and should be prepared.

KEY POINTS

  • The exact incidence of medical emergencies aboard airplanes is unknown, but they occurred in 1 in 604 flights in 1 study, which is likely an underestimate.
  • The relatively low air pressure in the cabin can contribute to the development of acute medical issues.
  • In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration mandates that airlines carry a limited set of medical resources.
  • The Aviation Medical Assistance Act protects responding providers against liability except in cases of “gross negligence.”
  • You the physician can recommend that the flight be diverted to the closest airport, but only the captain can make the actual decision.


 

References

It could happen. You are on a plane, perhaps on your way to a medical conference or a well-deserved vacation, when the flight attendant asks you to help a passenger experiencing an in-flight medical emergency. What is your role in this situation?

FLIGHT ATTENDANTS USED TO BE NURSES

Before World War II, nearly all American flight attendants were nurses, who could address most medical issues that arose during flights.1 Airlines eliminated this preferential hiring practice to support the war effort. Traveling healthcare providers thereafter often volunteered to assist when in-flight medical issues arose, but aircraft carried minimal medical equipment and volunteers’ liability was uncertain.

In 1998, Congress passed the Aviation Medical Assistance Act (AMAA), which provides liability protection for on-board healthcare providers who render medical assistance. It also required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to improve its standards for in-flight medical equipment.2,3

HOW OFTEN DO EMERGENCIES ARISE?

How often medical events occur during flight is difficult to estimate because airlines are not mandated to report such issues.4 Based on data from a ground-based communications center that provides medical consultation service to airlines, medical events occur in approximately 1 in every 604 flights.5 This is likely an underestimate, as many medical events may be handled on board without involving a ground-based consultation center.

The most common emergencies are syncope or presyncope, representing 37.4% of consultations, followed by respiratory symptoms (12.1%), nausea or vomiting (9.5%), cardiac symptoms (7.7%), seizures (5.8%), and abdominal pain (4.1%).5 Very few in-flight medical emergencies progress to death; the reported mortality rate is 0.3%.5

CABIN PRESSURES ARE RELATIVELY LOW

The cabins of commercial airliners are pressurized, but the pressure is still lower than on the ground. The cabin pressure in flight is equivalent to that at an altitude of 6,000 to 8,000 feet,6,7 ie, about 23 or 24 mm Hg, compared with about 30 mm Hg at sea level. At this pressure, passengers have a partial pressure of arterial oxygen (Pao2) of 60 mm Hg (normal at sea level is > 80).8

This reduced oxygen pressure is typically not clinically meaningful in healthy people. However, people with underlying pulmonary or cardiac illness may be starting further to the left on the oxygen dissociation curve before gaining altitude, putting them at risk for acute exacerbations of underlying medical conditions. Many patients who rely on supplemental oxygen, such as those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are advised to increase their oxygen support during flight.9

Boyle’s law says that the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to its pressure. As the pressure drops in the cabin after takeoff, air trapped in an enclosed space—eg, in some patient’s bodies—can increase in volume up to 30%,10 which can have medical ramifications. Clinically significant pneumothorax during flight has been reported.11–13 Partially because of these volumetric changes, patients who have undergone abdominal surgery are advised to avoid flying for at least 2 weeks after their procedure.10,14 Patients who have had recent ocular or intracranial surgery may also be at risk of in-flight complications.15

IN-FLIGHT MEDICAL RESOURCES

The limited medical supplies available on aircraft often challenge healthcare providers who offer to respond to in-flight medical events. However, several important medical resources are available.

Medical kits and defibrillators

Contents of on-board emergency medical kits mandated by the US FAA

FAA regulations require airlines based in the United States to carry basic first aid supplies such as bandages and splints.3 Airlines are also required to carry a medical kit containing the items listed in Table 1.

The FAA-mandated kit does not cover every circumstance that may arise. Although in-flight pediatric events occasionally occur,16 many of the available medications are inappropriate for young children. The FAA does not require sedative or antipsychotic agents, which could be useful for passengers who have acute psychiatric episodes. Obstetric supplies are absent. On international carriers, the contents of medical kits are highly variable,17 as are the names used for some medications.

The FAA requires at least 1 automated external defibrillator (AED) to be available on each commercial aircraft.3 The timely use of AEDs greatly improves survivability after out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.18,19 One study involving a major US airline found a 40% survival rate to hospital discharge in patients who received in-flight defibrillation.20 Without this intervention, very few of the patients would have been expected to survive. In addition to being clinically effective, placing AEDs aboard commercial aircraft is a cost-effective public health intervention.21

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