Is There a Doctor on Board? Medical Emergencies on Commercial Flights

Most physicians are consumers of commercial air travel. More than half of flights have a physician among the passengers, and 50% of physicians have responded to a medical emergency on an airplane. Medical emergencies on flights are becoming more common as air travel becomes globally accessible, people fly greater distances, and the U.S. and European population ages. Responding to  medical problems on an aircraft is one of the purest expressions of the Hippocratic oath but provokes anxiety in many providers given the unfamiliar and haphazard environment. Many providers are not aware of:
1.  The pathophysiologic stresses of commercial air travel 
2.  Common airplane emergencies and the approach to a midair patient
3.  Interventions that can be performed in response to a medical emergency on an airplane
4.  The equipment available on the aircraft
5.  Preparatory strategies for keeping patients safe during air travel.

Most medical school curriculums do not include lessons on the specific community need of volunteering for a medical emergency on an airplane. The midair practitioner may be asked to respond to a type of patient or condition outside of her usual scope of practice.  Many providers are not aware of equipment and interventions available on commercial aircrafts. Having an approach to the midair patient and thinking through scenarios of common airplane emergencies will help prepare health care professionals to respond if asked to serve.  

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize the most common midair emergencies
  • Describe pathophysiologic stresses flight exerts on the body
  • Demonstrate the approach to assessing the midair patient
  • Identify equipment available aboard commercial aircrafts and apply interventions to respond to a medical emergency
  • Apply anticipatory guidance to patients and explain appropriate recommendations for safe flying

Additional Information

Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS)
State Relevance: 
Course summary
Available credit: 
  • 1.50 MOC II
  • 1.50 AMA PRA Category 1 Credit
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Course expires: 
Nonmember cost:
Member cost:
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Theodore Macnow, MD
Theodore Macnow, MD grew up outside Philadelphia. He attended undergraduate and medical school at Tufts University. He completed a pediatrics residency at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City and a pediatric emergency fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital. He currently works as a pediatric emergency medicine physician at UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center. He has published research on carbon monoxide poisoning in youth ice hockey players and management of carbon monoxide in the pediatric emergency medicine department. After giving a lecture on medical emergencies on commercial flights many times over five years, he was asked to serve in his first midair medical emergency on a flight last February from Boston to Mexico.  

The Massachusetts Medical Society is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) to provide continuing medical education for physicians.

AMA Credit Designation Statement 
The Massachusetts Medical Society designates this enduring material for a maximum of 1.50 AMA PRA Category 1 Credit(s)™. Physicians should claim only the credit commensurate with the extent of their participation in the activity.

This activity meets the criteria for the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine for risk management study.

MOC Approval Statement 
Through the American Board of Medical Specialties ("ABMS") ongoing commitment to increase access to practice relevant Maintenance of Certification ("MOC") Activities through the ABMS Continuing Certification Directory , this activity has met the requirements as an MOC Part II CME Activity (apply toward general CME requirement) for the following ABMS Member Boards:

Allergy and Immunology
Colon and Rectal Surgery
Family Medicine
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Plastic Surgery
Preventive Medicine
Psychiatry & Neurology
Thoracic Surgery

National Commission on Certification of Physicians Assistant (NCCPA).
Physician Assistants may claim a maximum of 1.50 Category 1 credits for completing this activity. NCCPA accepts AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ from organizations accredited by ACCME or a recognized state medical society.

A score of 70% or higher is required to receive AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™.

Available Credit

  • 1.50 MOC II
  • 1.50 AMA PRA Category 1 Credit


Nonmember cost:
Member cost:
Student or Resident cost:
Other Health Care Professionals cost:
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Risk Management