Colleen Doherty
Author: Colleen Doherty, Customer Experience Executive

Colleen loves chatting to people, putting them in the best place to purchase their travel insurance, and helps them look forward to enjoying their holiday.

5 min read

Here's our guide if you have a medical emergency

For some travellers, travelling by plane can be a nerve-wracking experience at the best of times. Flying so high in the sky, placing your full trust in whoever’s manning the cockpit isn’t something we like to think about the potential consequences of too much – but trust that statistics are on your side in terms of something going wrong with the plane while you’re on your way from A to B.

However, there is another type of emergency passengers might have concerns about, particularly if they are travelling with a pre-existing health condition: that of the medical variety. Now, on the plus side, it’s important to be aware of the fact that this, too, is an emergency that is relatively rare when you consider the millions of people that fly around the world each year.

In fact, a study published by The New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, analysed the nature of emergency calls that took place over a three-year period from a mix of domestic and international airlines. The most reported medical complaint was passengers feeling faint or light-headed (37%), followed by respiratory issues, such as asthma (12%) and nausea or vomiting (9.5%). More serious issues came in further down the list with cardiac symptoms at 7.7% and seizures at 5.8%. In short, genuine medical emergencies only occur in 1 out of 600 commercial flights. The odds are in your favour.

However, if the stats are not enough to allay your fears, reassure yourself that, whilst airlines don’t require a doctor to be on board a flight, there are measures in place to take care of health emergencies.

Medical emergency – what next?

Firstly, although there is variability between airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stipulates that flight attendants must be trained in basic First Aid as well as in using an external defibrillator. So, you can rest assured that the flight team would be able to provide on-the-spot treatment for basic health issues as well as take immediate action in the case of a heart attack or a stroke. It is likely that in the case of a serious complaint, the flight team would make an announcement to find out if a medical professional is on board who could help.

Interestingly enough, in nearly half of all flights analysed in the aforementioned study, there was a doctor, nurse or paramedic on board to help assess a sick passenger and make recommendations. Additionally, some airlines are even taking steps to ascertain in advance whether a medical professional might be on board a flight. For example, Lufthansa’s ‘Doctor on board’ program encourages medical professionals to put their name on a list of those willing to be called upon should an emergency occur, so that flight attendants know exactly where they can find a helping hand.

However, this isn’t to say that all is lost if there is no doctor on board. Airlines coordinate with 24-hour medical call centres so that they can call in, connect with a consulting physician for recommendations on a treatment plan – it’s this physician who will make the ultimate call. Should the situation be too serious to handle on board, the flight crew will liaise with the physician and ground crew to decide whether an emergency landing is necessary. Emergency services would then be notified at the airport so that the patient can be whisked to the nearest medical facility once the plane has touched down.

How to stay safe during your flight

There are, of course, some unexpected medical emergencies that you really can’t prepare for or avoid. However, when it comes to issues that can be exacerbated by flights, there are precautionary steps you can take.

First of all, those with pre-existing health conditions should have a frank talk with their GP if they have any concerns about travelling. It’s important to be informed about how to travel with your medication. And it may be prudent to make your airline aware of any additional help you might need at the airport or on board.

Secondly, be aware that there is a risk of developing Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) which is when blood clots can form in your legs. However, contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t caused by flying per se, but by being seated in one position for a long time.

Ensure you stretch your lower limbs in your seat and take opportunities to walk around the plane on occasion. It is also important to stay well hydrated to prevent dehydration and the resulting symptoms during your flight.

Don’t forget your travel insurance when you head off on that trip of a lifetime. Medical Travel Compared can help you find the right plan for your circumstances.

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