New app helps doctors respond to in-flight emergencies

By Jonah Comstock
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If you're unlucky enough to be one of the 150 to 200 people each day who have a medical emergency on an airplane, your care is in the hands of whatever medical professionals happen to be among your fellow passengers. The chances are they're not emergency physicians and they haven't trained for this particular eventuality. 

"When doctors are up in the air, they really are not familiar with the environment," Dr. Raymond E. Bertino, a clinical professor of radiology and surgery at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, who has found himself in three such emergencies -- twice as a doctor and once as a patient -- told MobiHealthNews. "Most of them are not emergency doctors. You might have a radiologist, you might have a pediatrician, you might have an OB doctor, who really doesn’t know how to deal with emergencies in a day to day way. But the truth of the matter is, there’s not that many things that can be done up in the air. There’s some things that are very important, but they’re things that anybody with medical training can handle as long as they know what to do and remember what to do."

After his own experiences and after reading a 2011 JAMA editorial, Bertino decided to create a resource for doctors thrust into that situation, in a form of an app. AirRx, a recently launched iOS and Android app, provides a doctor with a to-do checklist, common medications available on flights, best practices for airline medicine, and information on legal rights and protections -- all available in airplane mode. Doctors can download the $4.99 app before a flight so they're prepared in case they're called upon to respond to a medical emergency.

Bertino started a not-for-profit to distribute the app, which was originally envisioned as a physical pamphlet that would be stored on planes. The download price is necessary to support the app, which Bertino said he didn't feel he could put advertising on. AirRx hopes medical societies might step up and foot some of that bill for their members in the future. 

"Flight attendants practice these sorts of events every year," Bertino said. "Ground support knows what they’re doing, the pilot knows what they’re supposed to do in this kind of medical emergency. The only person who doesn’t know what they’re supposed to do is the doc who’s volunteering. Docs aren’t taught about this in medical school and AirRx is meant to fill the gaps."

Bertino says that these medical emergencies happen enough that most doctors who fly will encounter one sooner or later. Dr. Eric Topol, digital health luminary and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, would probably agree: he's used AliveCore's Kardia Mobile ECG device to help patients in distress on airplanes on two separate occasions.