Airlines ‘leaving doctors out to dry’ after in-flight emergencies


By Geir O'Rourke

2 Dec 2022

An airline has been accused of leaving doctors “out to dry” after they render assistance during in-flight emergencies, even at the expense of a missed connection or lost seat.

The issue was raised by paramedic and medical researcher Aidan Baron, who said it had come up in conversation with a number of ED, ICU and critical care consults this week.

He said they’d all responded to in-flight emergencies on Qantas flights, often spending hours on the immediate care of their fellow passenger as well as filling out paperwork and liaising with police or other emergency services.

But despite the frequent disruption to the doctors’ own travel plans, many had been left with barely a ‘thank you’ from the airline, let alone a refund or replacement ticket, Mr Baron, a medical student at Notre Dame University, Sydney, alleged.

He wrote on Twitter: “The solution they came up with as a group: Always render assistance in an emergency but refuse to fill out any paperwork when asked by airline staff.”

“Give them your work address and bill the airline at a private consulting rate for all time taken to complete forms/paperwork.”

In response, a Qantas spokesperson said the company was always extremely grateful to doctors who provided medical assistance on board its aircraft, and had a policy of always thanking them formally.

“Whenever our crew put the call out for doctors onboard, they are always happy to assist. It can be the difference between life and death in some cases,” they said.

“In addition to any personal thanks provided by the crew on board, we have a policy to ensure doctors are formally acknowledged. We write to them and provide a gesture of thanks like Qantas Points.

The spokesperson added: “For example, we recently had a passenger who was quite sick on a flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane. A doctor was able to provide medical assistance to the sick passenger. This was obviously great for their health and wellbeing but also helped avoid the flight being diverted which would have disrupted hundreds of people.”

In-flight emergencies: what are doctors’ legal obligations

While callouts for “a doctor on board” are relatively rare, a recent study suggests many in-flight medical incidents require an emergency response.

The report, based on data from Qantas international and domestic flights, said the airline recorded 3555 in-flight medical incidents in 2015-16 – roughly one every 40 flights (2.7%).

Of these, 26% were graded as emergencies, with the most common descriptor being loss of consciousness (37%) and a suspected cardiac event (12%).

Six of the 915 emergencies recorded over the financial year proved fatal, according to the paper in Anaesthesia and Intensive Care (link here).

In a blog post (link here) back in 2016, medical defence provider Avant said that while there was no common law requirement for doctors to provide assistance as a ‘Good Samaritan’ in an emergency, there were still ethical obligations.

Nevertheless, these obligations were contingent on issues likely the doctor’s own safety, skill and the availability of other options, Avant said.

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