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Healthy connections

High-speed broadband inflight connectivity can be a lifesaver in the event of a medical emergency at 37,000ft. Kerry Reals reports

Connected mobile devices enable both cabin crew to communicate in real time with doctors on the ground and medics to carry out live video consultations with passengers, meaning crucial medical advice can be given in life or death situations. In less serious cases, such communications can prevent or reduce the number of unnecessary and costly flight diversions, often carried out as an abundance of caution.


MedAire, based in Phoenix, AZ, has been helping airlines manage inflight medical events since 1985, with its ground-based physicians traditionally offering assistance either via aircraft satellite phone links or the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS). But as more and more airlines equip their aircraft with satellite-based broadband connectivity, arming their pilots and cabin crew with connected tablets, the true future potential of telemedicine is only just beginning to emerge.


“Over the past five or six years, technology in the cabin has really been much more of a focus item,” says Richard Gomez, Vice President of Education at MedAire.


“The introduction of electronic flight bags [EFBs] and mobile devices for crewmembers has really helped provide a certain level of safety in the cabin. MedAire has a digital agenda which includes a mobile app for managing medical inflight events.”


This ability for cabin crew to communicate directly with doctors on the ground, instead of having to go through the pilot, is a significant breakthrough. “Crewmembers can connect by video with us, so there’s no need to get the pilot involved in the communication process. The pilot is too busy flying the aircraft or making plans to land to be saying, ‘blood pressure is 180 over 70,’” says Gomez.


Real-time text communications can be just as important as voice or video, particularly when it comes to locating a certain drug in the onboard medical kit. Drugs often have long and complicated names and the ability to text the name instead of spelling it out over the phone is an important benefit, according to Gomez.


Inflight connectivity providers such as Gogo now list telemedicine as one of the operational benefits of investing in a connected cabin.


“Connecting the crew through an easy-to-use messaging service would be the first step to helping those scenarios. Right now, you have to go through the cockpit to communicate to the ground,” says Andrew Kemmetmueller, Vice President of Airline Applications at Gogo. 


“We are also beginning to see a demand for connected onboard medical devices. By connecting these devices, telemedicine providers can receive real-time vital information about the patient. This information is key for medical providers during inflight situations, it can help save lives and determine if an inflight diversion is advisable.”


James Person, Director of ViaSat’s general aviation/VVIP division, agrees: “If a radiologist needs to look at an x-ray or a doctor needs a live chat, that’s when you need broadband to enable it,” he says. “It certainly allows for things that were not possible before.”  >>

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