- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) - Dr. Raymond Bertino has been both the volunteer and the victim when an airline attendant asked over the intercom, “Is there a doctor on the plane?”

A radiologist with Central Illinois Radiological Associates, Bertino has volunteered to help airline passengers in medical emergencies three times in his career. He suffered his own medical emergency somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea during a flight to Greece for a family vacation in 2007.

None of the incidents was serious, medically speaking. But they turned Bertino into a serious student of the lows of dealing with medical emergencies high in the air.

“I tend to get interested in things that are clearly not running well,” Bertino said earlier this week as he sat in the physicians’ lounge at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, where he practices.

He knew how uncomfortable he felt as the volunteer doctor on the plane, not sure of what he could or couldn’t do, what he should or shouldn’t do, or what medical equipment was or was not available 30,000 feet in the air. He knew the anesthesiologist who treated him on the flight to Greece was just as uncomfortable.

“I was glad he was there, but it was clear he felt helpless,” Bertino said, explaining anesthesiologists have far more experience dealing with medical emergencies than radiologists.

Bertino also realized the pilot, who happened to be a doctor, had very little information upon which to base an expensive - and definitely passenger-inconveniencing - decision to divert the plane.

Now, Bertino wants to know how much or how little area doctors know about procedures for dealing with medical emergencies on domestic flights. With the help of two residents from the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, Courtney Cook and Eric Chatfield, he began distributing surveys to area doctors Monday.

Members of the Peoria Medical Society received the online version by email. Paper versions are available at local hospitals. Bertino urges all doctors to fill out the survey, either online or on paper, and return them by the end of February.

The results could eventually help lead to better understanding of a doctors’ role in dealing with in-flight medical emergencies. Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center, the collaboration between OSF Healthcare and UICOMP, could figure in Bertino’s efforts.

Medical emergencies on airplanes are rare, compared with the number of people who fly each year. Most of the emergencies involve fainting, breathing problems, stomach problems or cardiac symptoms, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year. Only about 7 percent were serious enough to divert the plane, which can cost from $30,000 to $200,000, Bertino said.

The study examined almost 12,000 in-flight emergencies recorded over a two-year period on five domestic and international airlines. That’s about 50 a day in the United States alone. A health care professional, usually a doctor, stepped forward to help in 75 percent of the cases.

After Bertino’s personal experiences, an article on the topic published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2011 piqued his interest. He began corresponding with the main author, Melissa Mattison, a hospitalist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Their collaborative efforts to learn more themselves have resulted in important contacts with some of the key players involved jointly in health care and the airline industry, such as the International Air Transport Association and the Aerospace Medical Association.

The airline industry has its representatives, Bertino said. He and Mattison have “more or less claimed ourselves as representing the hundreds of doctors who raise their hands every day and say, ‘I’ll help.”

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