In-Flight Medical Emergencies

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In-Flight Medical Emergencies

A bad place for the worst to happen

By Working Nurse
to Save

Even if you’re not afraid of flying, it’s hard to imagine a worse place for a medical emergency than a commercial airliner — no room, no privacy, limited equipment and 30,000 feet between you and any needed resources. Fortunately, it’s not very likely, but if it ever happens to you, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine has some guidance on how to respond.

Limited Resources

The article, co-written by a group of emergency physicians and an attorney from Piedmont Liability Trust (an insurance provider in Charlottesville, Va.), describes some common occurrences and then offers suggestions for how to respond to heart attacks, angina and strokes in what the authors aptly describe as a “medically austere environment.”

One of the biggest problems in responding to in-flight medical emergencies is limited supplies. Onboard medical kits include aspirin, nitroglycerin and oxygen, and airliners are mandated to carry defibrillators. However, each of these requires caution and may not always work.

Furthermore, the range of medical emergencies for which airlines are required to prepare is relatively limited. For example, airliners are not required to carry glucose-monitoring kits even though hypoglycemia is one of the more common in-flight issues. Similarly, sedatives are seldom available in the event of a psychiatric emergency. Restraints can be improvised to avoid escalation, but deciding whether the situation merits restraining a passenger can be a very tough call, not least from a liability standpoint.

The Stress of Travel

The stress of modern air travel can contribute to or cause a variety of emergencies, not all of which indicate an underlying medical condition. Among the most common in-flight issues include “altered mental status” and fainting, which may indicate anything from a seizure to the effects of lower cabin pressure, dehydration, altered eating patterns and/or simple fatigue. Correctly diagnosing such problems with the resources available isn’t always easy.

The good news is that because healthcare providers travel often, many emergencies can be stabilized in flight, which makes medically related emergency landings rare. Click here to read more.


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