The Most Common Medical Emergencies on Flights and How to Treat Them
In-flight medical emergencies are on the rise, according to a new study released by the University of Toronto. In part, this is due to the fact that more people — including more elderly passengers — are taking to the skies. But it's also due to an increase in long-haul flights, which "subject passengers to longer exposure to physiologic stressors," the study stated.
The researchers cite another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that estimates one medical emergency occurs per every 604 flights — that's about 16 events per 1 million passengers. The top in-flight medical emergencies, according to the same study, are light headedness/loss of consciousness (37.4 percent), respiratory symptoms (12.1 percent), nausea or vomiting (9.5 percent), cardiac symptoms (7.7 percent), and seizures (5.8 percent).
And, according to Air Canada data, many of these cases require help from medical professionals in-flight. Between 2014 and 2016, "roughly half of in-flight medical emergencies were managed by a physician, nurse or paramedic, with the remainder managed by flight attendants alone."
“Passengers who are health care professionals, along with members of the flight crew, are often important resources for in-flight front-line care. Although flight crews receive some training in the treatment of in-flight medical emergencies, health care professionals receive little to none,” Dr. Alun Ackery of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto said in a new video filmed to help show other doctors what to do in case of an in-flight emergency.
Ackery appears in the video with Dr. David Kodama, emergency medicine resident at the University of Toronto, to teach medical professionals and flight crew how to accurately monitor patients' vital signs within a cabin.
After going through the emergency kit a doctor would be given onboard (the one used for the demonstration is from Air Canada), the doctors explain how in-flight conditions might hinder the use of some common tools. "At altitude, it is very difficult to hear breath sounds and to estimate blood pressure with the stethoscope," Kodama says.
The video also stresses that doctors are protected from liability if they volunteer to help a patient in the air and something goes wrong. This is to encourage more medical professionals to help in times of crisis without worrying about any legal repercussions.