Airlines give thanks for flying doctors

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DOCTORS just can't get away from their patients, writes Roger Dobson. This weekend, as many of them begin a holiday with a complimentary drink and a good book at 20,000 feet, they may well be interrupted by their aircraft's pilot with the immortal B-movie line: "Is there a doctor on board?"

Research by British Airways shows that in 12 months flight crews requested help from doctors and nurses on board 559 times to assist passengers suffering from complaints ranging from heart attacks to diarrhoea, toothache and nose bleeds.

About one in every 15,000 passengers becomes ill during a flight. According to Michael Bagshaw of BA Health Services, diverting a jumbo jet because of illness can cost up to pounds 40,000. In one year, 18 jets were diverted for medical reasons.

There are around 2,000 medical incidents a year on BA flights, including 25 deaths. Top of the illness list is diarrhoea, which in the past 12 months struck down 236 passengers, closely followed by fainting (234) and vomiting (130). There were 120 cases of asthma, 113 people collapsed and 65 suffered from anxiety. Five passengers had heart attacks, six had strokes and 45 had fits and convulsions.

Gynaecological problems accounted for 27 incidents, and eight people were floored by insect bites. Alcohol and drugs accounted for a mere 40 cases.

Last year two doctors saved the life of a Scots woman who had suffered a collapsed lung on a flight to London from Hong Kong by improvising a chest drain from a coat hanger, tubing from an oxygen mask,and a mineral- water bottle.

BA's on-board medical bag contains 88 items, including a delivery pack which has been used during a birth on board.

While many cases can be dealt with by doctors and nurses on board, airline captains can call a 24-hour on-call doctor in London for tips on handling the sick.

But there is a snag here, according to Mr Bagshaw: "The quality of transmission is variable and the link may be broken or intermittent, depending upon the geographical location of the aircraft."

Doctors are not legally obliged to come forward. Some, particularly Americans, are too afraid of potential litigation if they are not insured for Good Samaritan acts.