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Safe Travels: Majority of In-flight Medical Crises Seen to by Medically-trained Passengers

May 31, 2013 12:07 PM EDT

Medical emergencies during commercial airline flights, though frightening, are seen to by doctors, nurses and other medical professionals also aboard the plane three-fourths of the time, according to a study by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh.

Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study examined nearly 12,000 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.

Though not required by the Federal Aviation Administration, many airlines use a medical communications facility to consult with physicians on the ground, according to a press release regarding the study, with the most common problems reported relating to fainting, respiratory problems, nausea or vomiting and cardiac symptoms.

Based on those calls, the study’s authors found that physician passengers provided medical assistance in nearly half of those calls, with other medical professionals, including nurses and emergency medical technicians, providing help another 28 percent of the time.

What's more, of those treated in-flight, the majority of cases represented favorable outcomes, according to the study, with 25.8 percent transported to a hospital by emergency medical services, 8.6 of whom were admitted. In the end, only 0.3 percent died either on board the aircraft or during transportation to the hospital.

The study further found that most calls could be effectively managed by flight attendants, who are trained in emergency protocols and have access to an FAA-required emergency medical kit, with medical volunteers in the majority of cases.

In such instances, ground-based physician consultants provided additional guidance, including use of specific medications in the kit as well as assisting the pilot and crew in deciding whether the plane should be diverted.

In all, only 7.3 percent of the flights were diverted due to medical concerns.

Based on their study, the authors suggest that physicians and others obtain a basic understanding of the resources available to them on aircrafts should they be faced with an emergency while on board.

And while lead investigator Dr. Christian Martin-Gill stated that commercial flying is “generally safe” and in-flight deaths “rare,” he said that in the future he and his team “hope to look more closely at the most common conditions and which ones require follow-up care" so as to "better tailor treatment recommendations for passengers.”

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