In-Flight Medical Emergencies

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In-flight medical emergencies are often called IMEs for short. Millions of people fly all over the world, and a lot of them have serious health problems. So, it is not uncommon for IMEs to occur. While medical resources are often limited on flights, anyone with healthcare experience often is asked to help in the event of a medical emergency. While these people may have medical experience, they likely don’t have the experience needed to tend to an emergency in the air.

It is estimated that 1 in 604 flights will have a medical emergency. Flight passengers are exposed to low humidity and low partial oxygen pressure, which can aggravate many health conditions. The medical requirements for airline medical kits are very lenient. Every flight medical kit only needs to contain an AED (automated external defibrillator), vital sign assessment tools, bleeding control supplies, intravenous line kits, and medicines used to treat common conditions.

Most in-flight medical emergencies involved near-syncope (32.7%), gastrointestinal (14.8%), respiratory (10.1%), and cardiovascular symptoms (7%). These problems are addressed by the flight staff, medical workers who may be on the flight, and ground-based physicians. In some cases (4.4%), flights are landed as soon as possible, so the ill person can be taken to a hospital for emergency treatment.

The risk of blood clot in the legs and lungs is low but increases significantly in passengers with risk factors and on long haul flights. The studies have demonstrated that occurrence of  Pulmonary Embolism (PE) is extremely low on short flights. But there is significantly increased risk when the distance travelled is more than 5,000 miles (1.5 PE per million passengers) or time of flight is more than 8h duration (2.57 PE per million passengers). The quantitative risk of ower extremity DVT is  5% per flight in high-risk passengers and 1.6% per flight for low risk passengers following long haul flights.

When an emergency occurs on a flight, it is up to the flight crew to know and understand their IME procedures and find the emergency medical kit and needed supplies. Medical professionals who volunteer to help during an IME may often direct the flight staff on how to help them.

There is very little legal protection available for people who volunteer to assist during IMEs, which makes it less likely for flight attendants to get the help they need to adequately treat passengers. The legislature in place to protect volunteers reads:

“An individual shall not be liable for damages in any action brought in federal or state court arising out of the acts or omissions of the individual in providing or attempting to provide assistance in the case of an in-flight medical emergency unless the individual, while rendering such assistance, is guilty of gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

Data and reports on IMEs are limited but do show that they are more common than what most people realize. The need for flight attendants and staff to have medical training is obvious. Medical kits should be updated regularly, as well. It’s clear that more attention needs to be given to the supplies, training, occurrence, and legislature pertaining to in-flight medical emergencies.