Is There Actually a Doctor in the House?

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It’s a stock situation in movies and TV shows: Someone collapses, and a crowd gathers around them trying to help or wondering what to do. Inevitably, two things will happen. Someone will tell everyone to step back and give the victim some room to breathe, and someone will shout out to no one in particular, “Is there a doctor in the house!?”

Usually there is, and they save the day. If this ever happened to you in real life, though, how likely is it that there would be someone around who could save you?

Well, if you’re in an airplane, you should be OK. Christian Martin-Gill, a physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, recently combed through the in-flight communications of five different airlines covering a period of almost three years. In them, he found almost 12,000 calls to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s STAT-MD Communications Center, an always-open medical command center that some airlines use to consult with doctors during flight emergencies. 

Going through these calls, Martin-Gill found that a medical emergency happens on one out of every 604 commercial flights. The most common problems are people fainting, experiencing severe air or motion sickness, or experiencing respiratory or cardiac distress.

Physicians who happened to be passengers on the flight were able to treat the victims in about half of the emergencies that Martin-Gill examined. In more than a quarter of the other instances, a nurse or EMT who was on the plane stepped in to help.

So, the next time you get sick midair, there’s a good chance that shouting “Is there a doctor on the plane?” will actually get you some help.

Martin-Gill also discovered that the passengers treated in these emergencies generally came out of things OK. Of the almost 12,000 cases covered in the study, only 36 deaths occurred, 30 of those during the flight. Of the patients who made it to their original destinations (only 7 percent of the flights had to be diverted because of medical emergency), only a quarter had to be taken to the hospital upon landing, and only 8 percent of those actually had to be admitted.