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Doctors often on flights when help is needed, study finds

Is there a doctor on board? Surprisingly often, there is — in half of in-flight medical emergencies — and sick airline passengers almost always survive, a new study finds.

The research is the largest look yet at what happens to people who develop a medical problem on a commercial flight — about 44,000 of the 2.75 billion passengers worldwide each year, researchers estimate.

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The federally funded study reviewed about 12,000 cases handled by the Pittsburgh center over nearly three years. Results are in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

Among the findings:

The odds of a medical emergency are 1 per 604 flights, or 16 per 1 million passengers.

 Planes had to be diverted for emergency help in only 7 percent of cases.

 Doctors were on board and volunteered to help in 48 percent of cases; nurses and other health workers were available in another 28 percent.

 The most common problems: Dizziness or passing out (37 percent); trouble breathing (12 percent) and nausea or vomiting (10 percent).

 About one-fourth of passengers were evaluated at a hospital after landing and 9 percent were admitted, usually with stroke, respiratory, or cardiac symptoms.

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