An informal survey by MedPage Today found that most medical professionals prefer not to identify themselves unless an emergency requires their immediate attention.
In the past doctors have made headlines and earned accolades for inflight heroics that are worthy of a network television prime time drama. Surgeon Khurshid Guru famously saved a toddler’s life by crafting a device to deliver asthma medication from supplies he was able to scavenge on the the aircraft during a on a transatlantic Air Canada flight in September of 2015. More recently two doctors became social media heroes after creating a makeshift respirator, which helped to save the life of a woman experiencing a medical emergency on a JetBlue flight in the Caribbean.
It seems, however, that most medical professionals would prefer to shun this sort of attention when traveling.
An informal study by MedPage Today’s Dr. Anthony Pearson finds that most qualified medical experts would rather not be identified as such, unless a situation absolutely requires their assistance. While some of the MDs, Physician Assistants, Nurse Practitioners and EMTs surveyed said that they always pre-identify themselves when boarding a flight, the overwhelming number of respondents said that they would only step forward if their assistance is requested or clearly needed. Some of the physicians surveyed said that they would only identify themselves as a medical professional if no other qualified passengers were around to volunteer.
Pearson points out that while legislators in the U.S. passed a law in 1988 protecting so-called “good Samaritans” from lawsuits resulting from coming to the aid of a fellow passengers, medical professionals still risk liability for any decisions they might make in the less than optimum conditions of an aircraft cabin miles above the earth. Some of the doctors polled noted that requesting that the captain make an emergency landing is nearly always the safe choice, even if it might not be entirely necessary. Many of the the Medical workers surveyed said they weren’t eager to make a “better safe than sorry’ decision that could strand hundreds of passengers overnight (especially if it turns out that the situation didn’t warrant such an extreme measure). On the Other hand, not requesting an emergency landing could put a physician in serious jeopardy if it turns out that the passenger’s condition was worse than originally thought.
Only a handful of doctors said that they would ignore a call for assistance during a flight. The medical professionals surveyed noted that in addition to an ethical obligation, there could be serious legal and professional issues for any qualified medical worker who ignores a plea for assistance on a flight – especially if the situation turns out to be critical.
In some cases doctors who do offer their assistance, are treated less like heroes than one might think. A physician who offered her expertise during a recent Delta Air Lines flight was dismissed outright by a flight attendant who instead sought the assistance of a nurse who happened to be on the plane. The MD later suggested that she was sidelined by the crew member simply because of her race. A doctor on an EasyJet flight, says that cabin crew members offered him a free cup of coffee after responding to an onboard call for a medical professional to treat an ailing passenger. Doctor Edward Southall reports that while he accepted the complimentary coffee, he was charged for handily candy bar that came with it.