Written by Dr. Dave Hnida, CBS4 Medical EditorYou’re on a plane, cruising along at 38,000 feet when the voice on the intercom asks, “Is there a doctor on board?”

According to a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine, it happens more often than you think.

Researchers analyzed data from two years of domestic and international flights, and found 11,920 incidents of in-flight medical emergencies.

The most common reasons to page a doc:

37% of the time the passenger was suffering from dizziness.

12% of the time the complaint was shortness of breath

9% of the time, it was nausea and vomiting.

The rest was a wide range of chest pain, headaches, numbness, and “I don’t feel well” complaints.

And 48% of the time, a doctor was on board, and responded to the concern.

Obviously, not all doctors are emergency physicians, but most know how to handle an urgent issue. (Although I’m not sure what a dermatologist might be able to do, except examine an emergency mole that grew or changed in-flight.)

About 7% of the time, the passenger is so ill, the flight is diverted. That decision is made by the pilot, not the doctor.

Plus, the doctor is not allowed to enter the cockpit to speak to the pilot.

Fortunately, we now have a newly mandated supply of IVs, nitroglycerin, other medications, and an AED to practice medicine 6 miles in the air.

Another stat: of those close to 12,000 incidents, less than one half of one percent resulted in someone dying midair. In those rare cases, the usual cause is a heart attack or stroke.

As for me, yes I have been on a plane that paged a physician. Three times. And in one case, there were six of us on board travelling to a medical convention — and five fighting to see who would be in charge and put in the IV. The best medical treatment I could render was get the heck out-of-the-way and go back to my seat.


Remember, we’re all counting on you.


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