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Summer travel: Are you ready to answer the call for a doctor on the plane?

Beth Longenecker, DO, shares how she used her emergency medicine skills to help ill passengers on flights.

Beth Longenecker, DO, never imagined that her journey home from a blissful trip to Hawaii would include these seven words: “Is there a medical doctor on board?”

She immediately sprang into action, abandoning her book to help a passenger who had been found unconscious in the bathroom with dangerously low blood sugar levels. Quickly, Dr. Longenecker, who is board-certified in emergency medicine, obtained an IV and administered glucose to the patient on the plane. Eventually, the patient came to, though she was confused.

“Since the passenger couldn’t be moved back to her seat, I braced myself on the ground and held her while we landed,” Dr. Longenecker says.

In the summer, many physicians are traveling more frequently. Dr. Longenecker shares what you need to know if a medical emergency occurs on your next flight. A frequent traveler, Dr. Longenecker has answered the call for a physician on an airplane several times, including instances when she treated dehydration and an asthma attack.

Care in the air: 5 tips

1. Don’t be afraid to help

Although flight crews typically receive basic medical training and have access to an on-the-ground physician via telemedicine, in-person medical expertise from a physician on board can be critically important during an emergency.

“This is a patient who truly needs help. You don’t need to be trained in emergency medicine; any physician has a broad enough knowledge base to provide initial care,” Dr. Longenecker says.

2. Show some ID

To put the flight attendants and patient at ease, show your medical license, state license card, business card or another document that identifies you as a physician. You may also want to show your Advanced Trauma Life Support or Advanced Cardiac Life Support cards.

3. Understand that supplies will be limited

Typically airlines will have basic supplies such as oxygen and aspirin, but the supplies in the flight kit can be limited. Here’s a list of what the Federal Aviation Administration requires in flight kits.

“It’s a little more frightening treating someone on an airplane than in your office where you know what supplies you’ll have,” Dr. Longenecker says. “It’s hard to be prepared.”

In this situation, physicians might need to think outside of the box if the necessary supplies are not available in the kit. For instance, when Dr. Longenecker treated a patient who had an in-air asthma attack, another passenger had an inhaler he was able to use.

Beth Longenecker, DO (right), provided care to an ill passenger on the flight home from an anniversary trip to Hawaii with her husband, Bill Kortier.

4. Prioritize care

Assess the situation to determine the most crucial issue that needs to be taken care of on the airplane. For instance, on Dr. Longenecker’s journey from Hawaii, that meant providing the passenger with glucose to help elevate her blood sugar levels until they landed.

“You will get frustrated if you think comprehensively like you would in your office rather than addressing what is immediately correctable,” she adds.

5. Don’t accept payment

Good-faith treatment provided by a physician during an in-air emergency is protected from liability by the federal Aviation Medical Assistance Act of 1998, a Good Samaritan law. However, the law doesn’t apply if you accept payment for your services. But gifts of appreciation, such as a voucher for a free flight from the airline, are fine.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally posted Nov. 15, 2016, and is being re-shared during the summer travel season.

One comment


    I answered the call. To my great dismay it was care for the stewardess who had a chronic problem not any emergency at all and not even a close to an emergency situation. In addition, the crew requested that I authorize them to turn the plane around and head back to the nearest airport. We were in the middle of the Atlantic ocean and the closest airport was Ireland. Shortly the plane would have to continue on to New York. The crew pushed and pushed for me to authorize the turn around. I refused. My rationale was this—the problem was chronic, the passengers would not be able to get off the plane(some 200 people) and the crew apparently had some reason to want to land in Ireland. I like Ireland but to abuse the lives and time periods of the passengers for a stewardess who was too lazy to see her own doctor or wanted free medical care was absolutely insane.
    People who are really sick should not be flying. I understand emergencies but they are really few and far between. There are NO emergency supplies available but an empty box. Avoid the urge to play God unless it is truly an emergency and not merely an inconvenience.
    I got a bottle of champagne. I was angry at the abuse of my time and skills for the personal gain of a crew member. Be advised that one can be abused oneself.

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