Some comforting news about air travel

Traveling this summer? You may get better medical care than you think on an airplane.

Half of all flights have a doctor sitting somewhere in the airplane, reports Marilynn Marchione of the Associated Press in her article that is sourced from a Thursday, May 29, 2013 New England Journal of Medicine article. More comfortingly, when there is an on-board medical emergency, sick airline passengers almost always survive.

There are about 44,000 medical emergencies out of the 2.75 billion passenger trips per year. Here are some interesting statistics quoted by Ms. Marchione:

  • The odds of a medical emergency are 1 per 604 flights, or 16 per 1 million passengers.
  • Planes had to be diverted for emergency help in only 7 percent of cases.
  • Doctors were on board and volunteered to help in 48 percent of cases; nurses and other health workers were available in another 28 percent. Only one-third of cases had to be handled by flight attendants alone.
  • Most common problems: Dizziness/passing out 37%, trouble breathing 12%, nausea or vomiting 10%.
  • About one-fourth of passengers were evaluated at a hospital after landing and 9 percent were admitted, usually with stroke, respiratory, or cardiac symptoms.
  • Out of nearly 12,000 cases, a defibrillator was applied 137 times, including in 24 cases of cardiac arrest where the heart had stopped. Note: Sometimes defibrillators are used to analyze an irregular heart rhythm to help doctors figure out what to do, not necessarily to deliver a shock, so don’t panic if someone wants to put a defibrillator on you. You might not get the shock!
  • In one study, only 36 deaths occurred out of 12,000 in-flight medical emergency situations, with only 30 occurring during the flight.
  • Pregnancy-related problems were generally rare–61 cases, in this study–and two-thirds of them involved women less than 24 weeks along with possible miscarriages. Air travel is considered safe up to the 36th week or the last month of pregnancy.
  • In one study of 12,000 in-flight medical emergencies, only three cases involved women in labor beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy led to a plane being diverted.

If your summer vacation plans involve air travel this year, then I hope that these statistics bring your a bit more peace of mind.