Few flights diverted for medical emergencies

Doctors provided medical assistance in nearly half of medical emergencies on airline flights but only about seven per cent of flights are diverted, a new study finds.

Fainting, nausea, respiratory and cardiac problems most common issues aboard planes

Doctors provided assistance in nearly half of the medical emergencies on airline flights but only about seven per cent resulted in a diversion of the flight, a new study finds.

Dr. Christian Martin-Gill of the University of Pittsburgh and colleagues examined records of in-flight  medical calls from five U.S. and international airlines to a 24-hour command centre staffed by doctors between of Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 31, 2010.

Fainting, nausea, respiratory and cardiac problems are the most common medical emergencies aboard airplanes. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty)

"Serious illness is infrequent and death is rare," Martin-Gill and his co-authors concluded in Wednesday's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The death rate was 0.3 per cent, which they said is consistent with previously reported rates of 0.3 per cent to 1.3 per cent.

"Travelling physicians and other health-care providers are often called on to aid ill passengers. A basic knowledge of in-flight medical emergencies and awareness of the resources available can help them be effective volunteers," study's authors said.

Aircraft were diverted in 875 of 11,920 flights or 7.3 per cent, with the rest landing at their scheduled destination, the researchers said.

They estimated about one medical emergency per 604 flights resulted in calls to the command centre during the time period of the study.

The most common problems were:

  • Syncope (fainting) or near-syncope.
  • Respiratory symptoms.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Cardiac symptoms.

On-board assistance was provided most commonly by:

  • Physicians.
  • Nurses.
  • EMS providers.
  • Other health-care professionals.

The researchers concluded that passengers' symptoms can often be managed in collaboration with the flight attendants.

The most commonly used medications and therapies were oxygen (49.9 per cent of cases), intravenous saline solution (5.2 per cent) and Aspirin (5.0 per cent).

The researchers acknowledged the analysis was limited to in-flight medical emergencies that prompted calls to the communications centre and the medical categories were based on descriptions of the passengers' symptoms not diagnoses.