Introduction: Research and data regarding in-flight medical emergencies during commercial air travel are lacking. Although volunteer medical professionals are often called upon to assist, there are no guidelines or best practices to guide their actions. This paper reviews the literature quantifying and categorizing in-flight medical incidents, discusses the unique challenges posed by the in-flight environment, evaluates the legal aspects of volunteering to provide care, and suggests an approach to managing specific conditions at 30,000 feet.
Methods: We conducted a MEDLINE search using search terms relevant to aviation medical emergencies and flight physiology. The reference lists of selected articles were reviewed to identify additional studies.
Results: While incidence studies were limited by data availability, syncope, gastrointestinal upset, and respiratory complaints were among the most common medical events reported. Chest pain and cardiovascular events were commonly associated with flight diversion.
Conclusion: When in-flight medical emergencies occur, volunteer physicians should have knowledge about the most common in-flight medical incidents, know what is available in on-board emergency medical kits, coordinate their therapy with the flight crew and remote resources, and provide care within their scope of practice.