Many physicians are called upon to render emergency medical care outside of a healthcare setting. Emergencies on board flights are one such occurrence. What is considered an in-flight emergency varies greatly and can be anything from low blood sugar to a heart attack.

As a doctor who has answered the call for medical assistance on a flight, I’ve learned most emergencies are relatively minor and flights rarely need to be diverted. However, I’ve also discovered that airlines have few tools to handle medical emergencies. There are few-to-no medications and little to no supplies for monitoring a person’s stability.

For most doctors, the desire to answer the call for help far outweighs any thought of liability. Healthcare workers are granted some freedom from certain liabilities when they answer such distress calls. As healthcare professionals, we should do the best that we know how and defer to more skilled persons if they are available.

When responding to an in-flight emergency, introduce yourself and provide your credentials. Quickly assess the stability of the patient. The pilot has been made aware and is waiting to know if he/she needs to divert the flight. Get as detailed a hisory as possible and ask what equipment/ medication is available; if a person would benefit from a certain medication, ask the flight crew to ask other passengers if they have any available. Monitor the passenger until you are sure they are stable and keep the flight crew well-apprised of the passenger’s condition.

Asking a doctor to help a person in need without having the necessary means of doing so is limiting and could have dire consequences. Airlines would do well to be better equipped, even by having medications on board for an asthma attack or an allergic reaction.

As doctors, we are likely to be asked for help outside our usual medical setting. Not everyone responds to these calls.  It is much easier to pretend to be asleep than to help without appropriate tools. However, we may be the most highly qualified person available and a person’s only hope for survival.