Is There a Doctor On Board?"

The flight attendant’s voice crackles over the speakers, “Is there a doctor on board?!” You, a six-month-old intern, squirm in your seat, having an identity crisis. Do I qualify? Should I volunteer? What if I don’t know what to do? What if I do something wrong? As newly minted physicians, how equipped and/or comfortable are we when facing an in-flight emergency?

A huge thanks to Dr. Riana Wurzburger for addressing the nuts and bolts of in-flight emergencies, something we rarely discuss but are likely to face!

The Stats:

  • 1 medical emergency in every 604 flights… occurs on a daily basis!
  • Mortality Rate: 0.3% (mostly cardiac arrest)
  • Aircraft Diversion: 7%
  • Resolved before landing: 31%
  • Transported to hospital on landing: 37%, Admitted: 9%
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Do I have to respond?

We are not legally required in the US, but most of us will feel ethically compelled to respond. Interestingly, the captain and flight crew make the final decision about whether or not they will allow you to provide care (or give you access to the medical kit).

Who’s on my team?

  • All flight attendants are trained in CPR
  • All domestic airlines contract with ground-based medical consultation services

What do I have?

Campion EW. In-Flight Medical Emergencies during Commercial Travel. NEJM 2015.

Campion EW. In-Flight Medical Emergencies during Commercial Travel. NEJM 2015.

What do I do? Follow your instincts! And consider the table below 😊

Campion EW. In-Flight Medical Emergencies during Commercial Travel. NEJM 2015.

Campion EW. In-Flight Medical Emergencies during Commercial Travel. NEJM 2015.

Amazingly, this topic was just published in JAMA last month with handy dandy cards for approaches to the most common in-flight chief complaints! Check it out here, and print them out with your next boarding pass!