Medical staff onboard to help during most in-flight emergencies

If you're mid-flight and you're having a medical emergency, don't fret: Chances are there's another passenger or a flight attendant who will be able to take care of you, according to a new study.

A  study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 30 found that in more than three-fourths of medical incidents on airplanes, there was a doctor, nurse or other medical professional that was able to help.

"Commercial air travel is generally safe, and in-flight deaths are rare," said Dr. Christian Martin-Gill, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, said in a press release. "We hope to look more closely at the most common conditions and which ones require follow-up care so we can better tailor treatment recommendations for passengers."

The study looked at in-flight medical calls from five domestic and international airlines pulled from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center 's STAT-MD Communications Center, a 24-hour physician-directed medical command center. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not require airlines to consult with medical professionals on the ground, but most airline companies do so anyway.

There was a total of 11,920 in-flight medical calls recorded during the study period from Jan. 1, 2008 to Oct. 31, 2010. The number one reason for calls was syncope (fainting) or near-syncope, followed by respiratory symptoms, nausea or vomiting, and cardiac symptoms.

Physicians were providing medical assistant in-flight in half of those calls, the study found. Other medical professionals like nurses or emergency medical technicians assisted in 28 percent of the emergencies. Flights were only diverted because of medical emergencies 7.3 percent of the time.

Researchers found that in most of the emergencies flight attendants -- who are trained in emergency protocols and have access to an FAA-required emergency medical kit -- were able to treat the patient. Ground-based physician consultants mainly instructed the attendants on how to use a specific medications in the kit, and helped the pilot and crew decide whether or not the plane needed to be diverted so the patient could get further treatment.

The most commonly-used therapies included oxygen (in 49.9 percent of the cases), intravenous saline solution (5.2 percent) and Aspirin (5.0 percent).

Further analysis of nearly 11,000 cases showed that 25.8 percent were transported to a hospital by emergency medical services. Only 8.6 percent were admitted, and 0.3 percent died, either on board the aircraft or upon transport to the hospital. The main reasons for going to the hospital were stroke, respiratory and cardiac symptoms.

The authors said that physicians and other medical professionals should train themselves on what resources are available on flights so they can better assist passengers in case of an emergency.

Alex Isakov, a physician in the emergency room at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital, told USA Today that he has assisted patients on three international flights.

"There was a little cluster of volunteers trying to help," Abella, who was not involved in the case, said. "One guy said, 'I'm a psychiatrist.' Another guy said, 'I'm a dermatologist.' I said, 'I'm an emergency physician,' and they all cleared out of the way."

Even though he had medical training and help from airline staff, he often felt that he wasn't completely prepared for an in-flight emergency.

"I felt very much like I was flying by the seat of my pants," he admitted.

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