In a previous post the skeptical cardiologist wrote about the reluctance of doctors to “heed the call” , i.e., to respond to an in-flight medical emergency (IME) when the flight crew requests assistance from qualified medical professionals.
Only 20% of physicians in my (very unscientific) poll would respond to such requests.
I pointed out that:
“In 1998 Congress passed the Aviation Medical Assistance Act, which tries to protect medical Good Samaritans who heed an airplane call. The act protects physicians, nurses, physician assistants, state-qualified EMTs and paramedics:
“An individual shall not be liable for damages in any action brought in a 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.”
but I and other physicians had concerns beyond medical liability, as I detailed in my post.
Physicians Who Prefer Not To Head The Call
At the time I wrote that piece, to be honest, I was in the camp of physicians who would prefer not to heed the call.
I tended to agree with Dr. Winocour on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm who justifies his failure to respond in flight with two comments:
“Give it a minute. He’s gonna be fine.” and
“Have you ever been part of an emergency landing? Is that what you want, Larry? To spend the night in Lubbock, Texas, at a Days Inn with a $15 voucher from Cinnabon? Think about it.”
Although Winocour was correct that the vast majority of in-flight medical “emergencies” resolve without any specific intervention it is still helpful for a physician to attend on such patients and assess the situation.
And it is true that if he had attended on a patient with a serious non-transient medical problem he would suddenly find himself having to make an incredibly difficult and life-deciding decision on whether or not to divert the plane or make an emergency landing with insufficient diagnostic tools and inadequate information.
But somebody has to make that call and the physician heeding the call will have the assistance of experts in the field on the ground.
Qualified Physicians Should Be Prepared To Heed The Call!
After pondering the issue for a few years and reading an excellent review on the topic in a recent JAMA I have changed my stance and am now completely ready (almost eager) to heed the call.
In fact, I am currently writing this while en route from frigid and
snowy St. Louis to sunny and warm San Diego on a Southwest Airlines flight and I’m considering pre-identifying myself as a physician in case an IME develops. (The only thing stopping me is that it seems a little pretentious and likely unnecessary, perhaps if I just put wear my stethoscope constantly that will be enough.)
I have in my backpack several items that will assist me in handling cardiovascular emergencies should they arise:
- AliveCor Mobile ECG-With this and my iPhone I will be able to rapidly ascertain the stricken passengers heart rate and rhythm-crucial information to help diagnosis and proper treatment. (I also have my Apple Watch 4 for the same purpose.)
- Qardioarm BP cuff-Rapid, efficient assessment of BP without tubes, or wires.
- Stethoscope-a good one with which I can hear heart murmurs and lung sounds. Although the FAA-mandated emergency medical kit on board should have both a BP cuff and a stethoscope , I have no confidence they will be either accurate or functional.
- Sublingual nitroglycerin. The kit on the plane should have these along with 325 mg aspirin tablets, IV atropine, and injectable glucose, epinephrine and lidocaine.
- An epinephrine auto-injector. For the stricken passenger who is suffering anaphylaxis from the mixed nuts being served across the aisle.
Should there actually be a cardiac arrest I’m completely up to date on Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) and CPR training and there should be an AED on board to defibrillate if appropriate.
I’ve also decided that despite my reluctance to bring attention to myself, it is highly likely that I will be the most qualified person to rapidly diagnose and treat any serious cardiovascular condition that arises on my flight. As a doctor, I believe, I should be striving to provide assistance to those suffering whenever and wherever I can, be that in the air, on the sea, in the hospital or in the office.
N.B. One (of many) of the newly-minted wife’s favorite Airplane! lines comes from the doctor who heeded the call.