Ever wonder what happens when there’s a medical emergency mid-flight? According to this article in the New York Times, the answer to that question will vary quite a bit depending not just on who’s on the flight (“Is there a doctor in the house?) but on what’s actually in the plane’s emergency medical kit varies a great deal.
The F.A.A. requires that flight attendants undergo CPR training and that all United States airlines carry emergency medical kits and automated external defibrillators, but there’s no standard as to what’s in the kits nor how frequently they’re stocked.
Since the earliest days of commercial aviation, airlines have coped with medical emergencies in flight by calling on physicians who happen to be passengers. And as more people travel by air, the number of emergencies has risen accordingly.
“Passenger health is becoming more and more of an issue, because of increased life expectancy and more people flying with pre-existing conditions,” said Dr. Paulo Alves, a vice president at MedAire, a company that provides crew members with medical advice from physicians on the ground.
MedAire, which advises more than 60 airlines around the world, managed about 19,000 in-flight medical cases for commercial airlines in 2010. Although few were life-threatening, 442 were serious enough to require diverting the plane — and 94 people died onboard.
The numbers reflect a fraction of the actual number of in-flight emergencies. The Federal Aviation Administration does not track in-flight medical episodes, and airlines are not required to report them.
Airborne calls for medical assistance pose a singular challenge for physicians, who find themselves suddenly caring for a stranger whose history they don’t know, often with a problem well outside their specialty, in a setting with limited equipment but no shortage of onlookers scrutinizing their every move.
The lack of standardization was criticized in a recent article in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The paper argued not only that the medical kits should be standardized, down to the number of latex gloves, but also that a method for reporting incidents should be consistent among all airlines.
“Aviation is held up as this paragon of safety, yet here’s this nasty thing that happens with no standard for reporting,” said one of the article’s authors, Dr. Melissa Mattison, associate director of hospital medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “We know more about animals that die on airplanes than we do about people.”
Despite the pressures, the haphazard nature of the work, the lack of compensation and the risks, physicians continue to reach up and answer the call. In a world of insurance forms, rushed office visits and ubiquitous technology, many count such emergency calls among the purest expressions of their Hippocratic oath.
“You feel good about trying to help someone, and that’s the most important thing,” said Dr. Ingrid Katz, an infectious disease specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “But don’t expect anything. It’s solely for the benefit of the person in need.” Read more…