On an annual basis, commercial airlines serve more than a billion travellers. So, while it may not be a common occurrence, there can be a possibility of medical emergencies that happen during a flight. These situations usually affect the flight passengers, but in rarer circumstances, may affect the crew members too.
In the event of a medical emergency, the flight crew is trained to respond and manage them in the most suitable and efficient way possible to care for the affected travellers without alarming other passengers.
The two types of in-flight medical emergencies
Medical emergency situations often fall into two categories, which are health-related situations or injury-related ones. Health issues that commonly affect an individual or multiple passengers may range from nausea and shortness of breath to more serious ones such as gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular issues, and even commutable diseases. On the other hand, injury-related situations can include physical trauma from falling luggage, altercations between passengers, or accidents involving hot liquids or materials.
As there is limited access to care during a flight, cabin crew members are trained in first aid and can render medical assistance in a limited capacity. They will also have to adhere to the protocols that are in place to ensure the most suitable outcome for the afflicted passenger.
Discovery of a medical situation
Members of the flight crew can be alerted of a medical situation by direct observation, but in most cases, they are informed by the passenger in distress, their companion, or another passenger that is seated nearby. The flight attendant that is first to respond will, in most cases, take charge of the affected passenger and bring the situation to the attention of other crew members. Subsequently, they will retrieve and provide the medical equipment needed, while also keeping the Flight Captain progressively informed regarding the patient’s situation.
Assessment & Diagnosis
After the discovery of the patient, the flight attendant that is in charge of the patient will begin a preliminary assessment. A question and answer protocol will be used with a conscious patient to find out the cause of medical distress. However, an unconscious patient will be treated with first aid techniques, including CPR.
The flight attendant can also request for a doctor or any medical professional on board the flight to assist in the assessment of the afflicted patient and advise the members of the flight crew on the appropriate course of action for the patient.
In addition, they can also contact emergency medical service providers via satellite phone and establish communication with a trauma centre physician to help with the patient. The physician can then provide a proper diagnosis after being informed of the relevant personal and medical history of the patient.
The need for diversion
There are multiple factors that contribute to making the decision to divert the flight. Mainly, it will be the condition of the afflicted passenger and the distance of the original destination. The flight crew has to consider three primary categories before diversion; medical, commercial, and operational.
These categories put into consideration the various issues that can be affected with a flight diversion such as: the urgency of the medical situation, the availability and proximity of emergency medical services or medical evacuations, the remaining fuel in the plane, the weather around the diversion destination, least disruption in schedule, and also accommodation for crew and passengers.
The flight crew will then decide to carry out the diversion after taking these issues into consideration and bring the afflicted patient to the most suitable diverted destination to receive the necessary medical assistance.