In-Flight Health Emergencies Happen Less than you Think

Airline Emergency

According to a new report, in-flight medical emergencies occur surprisingly only 1 in every 604 commercial air flights on average.

With 2.75 billion passengers flying on commercial airlines a year, that breaks down to about 44,000 in-flight emergencies a year.

Researchers looked at all international and domestic flights on five airlines between January 2008 and October 2011. The names of the airlines are not being published to protect the confidentiality of the patient, the researchers said.

The study reports about one in four patients went to emergency rooms after landing, and 8% were admitted to the hospital, while only 7% of emergencies required airplanes to be diverted.

Doctors on board the airline volunteered to help in 48 percent of the time; nurses and other health workers were available in another 28 percent. Only one-third of in-flight emergencies had to be handled by flight attendants.

“We believe that airline passengers who are health care professionals should be aware of their potential role as volunteer responders to in-flight medical emergencies,” the authors said.

An emergency medical kit and a defibrillator are required by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on every flight, and many commercial flights communicate with ground-based medical practitioners when an in-flight emergency happens.

According to the study, “airlines partner with health care institutions to deliver real-time medical advice from an emergency call center to airline personnel, in an effort to improve the quality of care provided to passengers.”

Potential cardiac symptoms account for a relatively large number of in-flight medical emergencies. Most can be managed with simple treatment after focused history taking, until definitive care is available. Aspirin, nitrates, and oxygen are available in the emergency medical kit. Patients with angina or atypical chest pain can be treated and transferred to an ambulance on landing, the study reports.

The most common medical problems included: 37 percent with Dizziness or passing out; 12 percent experience trouble breathing and nausea or vomiting at 10 percent.

You would think pregnancy would be common, but it’s not. Pregnancy-related problems are actually rare, with only 61 cases, in this study — and two-thirds of them involved women less than 24 weeks along with possible miscarriages.

Air travel is considered safe up to the 36th week of pregnancy. Only three cases of women in labor beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy led to a plane being diverted.

In the federally funded study, they reviewed about 12,000 cases handled by the Pittsburgh center over three years. Results were published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

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2 Comments on "In-Flight Health Emergencies Happen Less than you Think"

  1. I only remember one medical emergency on all the flights I’ve taken (probably around 200 in my lifetime). An elderly woman went into cardiac arrest while in a locked bathroom. By the time her son realized and the flight attendants opened the door there was no chance of survival. I was disappointed by the flights attendants’ response. They had to be told by me and a doctor to go get the defibrillator. They didn’t know how to use it and didn’t know CPR. I assume they were trained, but they were unable to act on that training in flight. At least they called for help quickly.

  2. David Barkhimer | May 30, 2013 at 10:24 am | Reply

    With 44,000 in-flight emergencies per year, that is 120 per day. If only 7% of them cause a flight to divert, that is 3,080 diversions per year, or over 8 diversions per day. I’m not sure that I would categorize this as “less than you think” as the title states.

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