At this time of year with so many of us boarding planes to see family, friends, and others as part of our yearly holiday pilgrimage, there is nothing worse than hearing the words “is there a doctor on board the plane?” In fact, over the past year, I personally have heard that announcement on several flights, which tells me that there is a large number of individuals requiring medical assistance onboard flights. Luckily, the airlines are prepared because all jetliners are required to carry an onboard emergency medical kit equipped with medications and first aid items. Moreover, for those complicated medical situations, all U.S. and international airlines have an air to ground medical consultation service so as to guide pilots, flight attendants and good Samaritan medical professionals with onboard medical emergencies and decide whether the plane needs to make an emergency landing.
One company, MedAire, an air-to-ground medical company based out of the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, handles 90 percent of the world’s airline onboard medical needs. In 2011, they logged up to 22,594 in-flight medical cases that required an air to ground call. Despite the high volume of consultations, it is important to remember that there are literally hundreds of thousands of flights that occur with millions of passengers annually; therefore, the risk of something happening aboard any typical flight is actually quite small. According to the FAA and a Mayo Clinic study, neurological emergencies are the most commonly occurring urgent calls but cardiac problems are most responsible for emergency landings. Nevertheless, here are several tips that you as the passenger can take so that you are not the one that will be receiving the help from a good Samaritan or find yourself spending your holiday at an unexpected hospital location midway to your expected destination.
6 Tips to prevent travel related medical problems:
- Remember to always carry your medication on with you. Never ever place your medication in your checked bags. This is important, especially if you have conditions such as asthma, seizures, diabetes, high blood pressure or other medical issues that require immediate intervention and quick access to your medication.
- Limit your alcohol consumption and drink water, juice or club soda instead. One of the most common causes of medical emergencies are those related to dehydration caused by poor fluid intake often exacerbated by alcohol. Typically the signs and symptoms include dizziness and fainting. Alcohol increases side effects of medications, and the lower oxygen level found in planes may increase the bad effects of alcohol.
- Stay rested and relaxed. This is easier said than done with all the concerns about getting through security, having enough space for your luggage, and all the other challenges associated with flying. Try to fall asleep on the plane to avoid sleep deprivation.
- If you and your physician are considering an operation or change in medication, postpone it until after travel is completed. It is not uncommon to have new side effects from new drugs or have problems associated with a recent surgery or procedure.
- If you have a serious chronic illness like epilepsy, asthma or diabetes or you are pregnant, please carry an ID, a medic alert, or health documents that may help individuals in case of an emergency. Always check with your doctor about traveling so as to prevent problems.
- Should you develop a new onset of flu, or other contagious infection, realize that the plane is probably one of the worst places that you can be both for yourself and the public at large and that postponing your travel will probably be best. The last thing one wants is to have you and your fellow passengers quarantined due to an unknown bug, as has happened on a few flights in the recent past.
Following these suggestions will hopefully get you on your way to your holiday getaway.
Dr. Joseph Sirven is a first-generation Cuban-American. He is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and was past Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona. He is editor-in-chief of epilepsy.com and has served U.S. and global governmental agencies including the Institute of Medicine, NASA, FAA, NIH and CDC.