Improved care for heart attacks in the air

Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology

ISSN: 0002-2667

Publication date: 1 October 2000




(2000), "Improved care for heart attacks in the air", Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology, Vol. 72 No. 5.

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Improved care for heart attacks in the air

Improved care for heart attacks in the air

Keywords British Airways, Medical, Equipment

An otherwise uneventful British Airways flight recently from London to Newark marked a major advance in in-flight telemedicine and the care of airline passengers who may be suffering a heart attack. British Airways flight crew tested the newest addition to its in-flight medical kit – a tiny portable heart monitor – and used it to transmit diagnostic data via cutting-edge satellite communications technology.

From a point midway over the Atlantic Ocean, an actual electrocardiogram (ECG) was transmitted to computers in the UK and the USA. An ECG is a graphic representation of the heart's electrical activity that is used to begin to diagnose a heart attack in progress. The test started with the Micromedical Biolog 3000 ECG monitor. Slightly larger than a deck of cards, the Biolog monitor is a portable, handheld device capable of recording an ECG with the same accuracy as the monitors found in hospital emergency departments.

The monitor is connected via modem to a seatback phone on the Boeing 777 aircraft. The phone transmits the data to a telecommunications satellite, which relays it to a receiving station on the ground; from there the signal travels through conventional phone lines to an ordinary PC computer. Proprietary software translates the signal into the familiar ECG waveform that can be viewed on the computer screen or printed for inclusion in a permanent patient record. British Airways is believed to be the only commercial airline with the capability to relay such detailed information about an ailing passenger to a medical expert on the ground.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, British Airways will begin outfitting its long-haul 777s and 747s with the Biolog monitor. Last year, the carrier upgraded its in-flight medical kits with the addition of Medtronic Physio-Control LIFEPAK(R) 500 automated external defibrillators (AEDs), which can be used by flight attendants and other people without extensive medical training to treat victims of sudden cardiac arrest. "If a passenger starts experiencing chest pain at 30,000 feet, we can't just call an ambulance to take him to the hospital. If it's a life-threatening emergency, we have to divert the flight to the closest city where we can safely land, with appropriate facilities to care for the patient", explained Dr Nigel Dowdall, a British Airways senior occupational physician.

"The Biolog monitor will enable us to identify in-flight medical emergencies more accurately", continued Dowdall. "A heart rate reading will be transmitted to MedLink's medical experts on the ground. MedLink's doctors, who are experts in emergency medical care in remote locations, can assist the crew via an air to ground link. They will be able to continuously monitor a passenger's condition, even if the plane is several hours from land, or advise any licensed health-care practitioner who may be on board the plane to administer medications from the plane's medical kit." When the plane lands, emergency medical crews called to the scene will already have some knowledge of the patient's condition and, if necessary, the nearest hospital can start preparing for treatment.

"All of that information is extremely valuable to the physician", said Rene Mitchell, vice president of world-wide marketing for Medtronic Physio-Control. "The more physiological data we can make available, the better the results will be for the patient." British Airways is the world's largest international passenger airline, operating more than 1,000 flights every day and carrying more than 41 million passengers a year.

The Biolog 3000 monitor is manufactured by Micromedical Industries Limited (Australia: MDD), an Australian medical technology company, and distributed exclusively by Medtronic Physio-Control to the commercial airline industry.

Details available from Medtronic Physio-Control. Tel: +1 718 397 4731.