Why in-flight cardiac arrest is so risky
Cardiac arrests account for less than one percent of in-flight medical emergencies, but they're responsible for 86 percent of airline emergencies that lead to death. A cardiology task force now provides specific treatment recommendations for in-flight medical emergencies.
We talked with Dr. Thomas Doyle, associate medical director at UPMC Department of Emergency Medicine, about some risks associated with cardiac arrest mid-flight.
Are airlines currently taking any precautions to prevent cardiac arrests during flights?
Aircrafts with more than 50 seats are required to have an AED (Automated External Defibrillators) and medical kit on board. In the case of an emergency, the airlines will search for a medical volunteer on the plane to help assist, and flight attendants are also trained in CPR. Airlines may also use a ground-based medical support service, such as STAT-MD, to assist in these events. Additionally, if someone doesn't look well, the airlines can perform a gate screening on that person and check for signs indicating they shouldn't fly.
What precautions should someone take before flying?
People should never fly when they have a chronic condition or any medical condition that could cause them to go into cardiac arrest. There are cases where people are aware of their conditions and proceed to board a plane because they are excited to reach their destination. Always prioritize your health ahead of a vacation and know when it's not safe for you to fly. When in doubt, get cleared by a physician before using air transportation.
Why is cardiac arrest so dangerous on a flight?
The worst time to go into cardiac arrest is when you are at high altitude. If you are over land, it will take the pilot at least 30 minutes to land the plane, which could be too long away from a hospital, even with proper CPR and medical care. Over water it will likely take much, much longer for the pilot to land. Another risk factor is the length of flights. Planes can now fly for 14 hours, which is too long for anyone to sit still. Long flights with no movement can increase the risk of blood clots in the legs, which can travel to the lungs and potentially be fatal. If you must take a long flight, be sure to get up and move around as often as possible when the cabin crew indicate it is safe to do so.