'Is There a Doctor on Board?' Keeping Quiet vs Stepping Up

Shelly Reese


September 17, 2015

In This Article

Up in the Air: Responding to In-Flight Medical Emergencies

It might sound like a line out of a Hollywood script, but with an estimated 44,000 in-flight medical emergencies occurring worldwide every year, according to a 2013 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine,[1] physicians flying the friendly skies need to be prepared to respond at 35,000 feet.

What Are the Odds?

In-flight medical emergencies on a commercial flight are relatively infrequent, according to the study authors: The occurrence of in-flight medical emergencies is only about 16 per 1 million passengers, according to the study authors. But with some 2.75 billion passengers flying commercial airlines worldwide each year, the odds of being asked to assist with a medical emergency in the air are considerably higher.

After analyzing data from five domestic and international airlines over a 34-month period ending in October 2010, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) concluded that the incidence of in-flight medical emergencies is about 1 per 604 flights.[1] In roughly three quarters of those cases, flight crews requested and received assistance from passengers with medical training, including doctors, nurses, and EMS providers. Nearly half the time (48%) physicians answered the call.

"Medical emergencies in the air are an everyday occurrence," says Dr Christian Martin-Gill, one of the study's authors. What's more, they're likely to become even more common given the increase in air travel and long-haul flights. Consequently, he says, physician passengers need to know what they may face if they hear the call.

Despite their training, physicians may be reticent to respond to flight attendants' requests for help. Some may assume or hope that another more qualified passenger will respond, or they may be intimidated by the cramped surroundings and lack of hospital resources. Others may feel that they are not emotionally or physically equipped to respond; perhaps they have been napping, have had a cocktail, or have a debilitating fear of flying. Still others fear legal liabilities, paperwork, or missed connections.

Dr Robert Tanz understands that hesitation. A Chicago pediatrician and professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, Dr Tanz was flying home from London more than a decade ago when a flight attendant paged for medical assistance.


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