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Tuesday, March 23, 1999 Published at 13:18 GMT


Airlines 'pennypinch on medical care'

Airlines operate different rules on how to deal with emergencies

Doctors and politicians have met airline representatives to press for better medical facilities on flights.

Tim Burrowes of Hospital Doctor estimates the savings to airlines
They held a meeting at the House of Commons on Tuesday to address the issue.

As a result, Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat health spokesman, will call on Transport Minister John Reid to take action.

He will ask him to set up Europe-wide minimun levels of emergency equipment to be carried on flights.

The move comes as it was claimed in-flight medical assistance saves airlines £300m a year.

Doctors want airlines to acknowledge the contribution they make by providing free care when emergencies occur in the air.

But airlines say they are already taking steps to improve on-board facilities and rewards to "good Samaritan" doctors.

Preventing flight diversions

Hospital Doctor and Doctor newspapers arrived at the £300m figure by calculating how much it would cost to divert flights if doctors did not assist.

[ image: Two-thirds of doctors have been asked to help out on flights]
Two-thirds of doctors have been asked to help out on flights
The papers are campaigning for insurance indemnity cover, better facilities and free upgrades for doctors who abstain from alcohol on flights.

They claim that despite the money doctors save, airlines are failing to invest in proper life-saving equipment.

One example is a pulse oximeter, which monitors a patient's pulse, oxygen levels and breathing even in the noisy surroundings of a plane - where a stethoscope may not work.

Dr John Sills, of Whiston Hospital in Liverpool, helped out on a Finnair flight and found no such equipment available.

He told the papers: "The plane must cost several million pounds yet the price of pulse oximeters is under a thousand.

"Airlines are doing the bare minimum."

Evidence in Parliament

Tuesday's meeting presented the evidence on how much airlines save through doctors' interventions.

[ image: Dr Evan Harris will ask Transport Minister John Reid to act]
Dr Evan Harris will ask Transport Minister John Reid to act
Those in attendance included Farrol Kahn, director of the Aviation Health Institute, and Dr Peter Holden of the British Medical Association.

Professor Angus Wallace, who became famous for saving a patient's life with a coat hanger and a pair of scissors, was also there.

They met with representatives from Lufthansa, Air France and Emirates.

Tim Burrowes, deputy editor of Hospital Doctor, said the airlines' approach had been "happy and helpful".

Mr Khan said: "Passenger health has come of age. The number of passenger deaths on aircraft is now equal to or exceeds those killed in aircraft accidents each year.

"Yet a negligible amount is spent on passenger health compared with the billions spent on aircraft safety.

"We need accurate reporting of air-passenger illness and a code of best practice for the industry.

"This should at the very least include details of a standard medical pack and better training for cabin staff to make sure that airlines provide adequate help to doctors who treat fellow passengers on board."

Taking steps to improve the situation

A spokeswoman for British Airways said the airline would welcome a code of practice.

[ image: Not all equipment will function in a noisy plane]
Not all equipment will function in a noisy plane
She said: "We already provide indemnity cover for doctors who give treatment on our flights and we do reward doctors who help other passengers in a variety of ways, perhaps with upgrades or vouchers.

"There isn't a standard policy for rewarding doctors and we would support the aviation industry in introducing that."

The airline's fleet is also equipped with MedAire links, which allow doctors on the ground to give instructions to crew on board.

BA is also equipping all aircraft with defibrillators - which can restart a patient's heart - from next month, and is training crews to operate the equipment, she said.

All aircraft would be equipped with defibrillators by April 2000, she added.

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