Clinic in the air? A retrospective study of medical emergency calls from a major international airline

J Travel Med. 2008 Nov-Dec;15(6):391-4. doi: 10.1111/j.1708-8305.2008.00233.x.


Background: There is a high likelihood of a medical professional being onboard the aircraft at the time of emergency. Therefore, a health-care professional should be familiar with in-flight medical events and how to deal with them.

Methods: I present a 12-month retrospective study of medical distress calls from a major Asian international airline for which International SOS provided in-flight telemedical assistance. All the calls from the airplane to our center were analyzed from January 1, 2006, to January 1, 2007. The number of recommended diversions, availability of a medical professional, the range of medical problems, and used medications were considered.

Results: Overall, there were 191 in-flight air-to-ground consultations. Twenty-three (12.04%) calls were made for pediatric problems, with the youngest patient being 9 months old. Gastrointestinal complaints and simple faints comprised 50.2% of all calls. Most of the in-flight problems were successfully treated symptomatically with the initial recommendation to lie the patient down and administer oxygen. Metoclopramide, stemetil, loperamide, and buscopan were the most often administered drugs. A doctor was onboard in 45.5% of all calls. A recommendation to divert the aircraft was made in six (3.1%) cases.

Conclusions: Although developments in telemedical assistance and the content of a medical kit make the management of potential in-flight medical emergency much easier, they will never turn a commercial aircraft into a flying clinic. Preflight check-in screening by airlines and encouraging future air travelers with health concerns to seek medical help before flying should be recommended.

MeSH terms

  • Aerospace Medicine
  • Aircraft*
  • Emergencies*
  • First Aid
  • Humans
  • Telemedicine*