Commercial Air Travel is Really Safe

For the last 25 years I have had the privilege of being a designated airman medical examiner by the Federal Aviation Administration. To earn that privilege, it required flying to FAA headquarters and taking a one week training course followed by refresher training material every three years.

The FAA grades medical examiners annually by our judgment and decision-making. The nature of the questions we are required to ask the pilot candidates, and the exam, have been dictated by the rigors of being a pilot and reflect the stresses unique to flying a plane safely. Many of them were created after a plane crash, fatality and the resulting National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation revealed a health reason involved in the crash.

I attended my refresher course in Washington, D.C. this past week over a three-day period. Physicians designated by the FAA fly to the event and stay at their own expense. By law, the FAA is not permitted to pay for food, coffee or any expenses. Over 50% of the attendee physicians are pilots who fly to the conference in their own private planes. There are about 2,800 physicians performing these exams around the world and, judging by the grey hairs, and canes in the crowd; they are getting significantly older reflecting the same process in the physician population in our country.

This was the first time I attended this meeting and I saw a significant number of women physicians in the audience which makes me believe there is diversity in the physician examining population as well. The speakers on medical topics are first rate. We heard from leading doctors at the best places, all leaders in aerospace medicine and research in cardiology, neurology, psychiatry, otolaryngology, ophthalmology, fatigue and sleep medicine. I learn a great deal of general medicine to bring back to my medical practice medicine at these sessions.

Performing FAA exams for pilots is not a particularly lucrative proposition. You see 3 classes of candidates including the commercial pilots for class 1 exams, navigators for class 2 exams and general aviation or civilian private pilots for class 3.

As our pilot population continues to age, domestic airlines are now retiring them at age 65. If perfectly healthy, a class 1 pilot starts getting EKGs annually at age 39 and they are then seen every six months at a minimum. The exam and paperwork takes 45 minutes at least and must be transmitted back to the FAA by computer. If you detect a problem either by your taking a history, or performing an exam, there is a further investment of time and research to provide the FAA safety experts with the medical records they need to determine if the pilot is healthy enough to safely fly a plane.

I would say the vast majority of examiners charge only $175 or less for these exams. Try getting that time, attention and value when you go to most physicians for an exam.

The reward for being a designated airman medical examiner is being part of a team that keeps the skies safe for the flying public. Seeing accident and mortality rates decrease year after year brings an extraordinary sense of satisfaction. I get to work with extraordinarily talented and dedicated employees of the FAA, from the staff at my Regional Flight Surgeons headquarters in Atlanta, and the professionals in Oklahoma City and D.C. who read, train and study so when I fly from place to place, I arrive there intact after an uneventful flight. There you have it. Commercial air travel is really safe.

Consumerism and Convenience Gone Wild in Health Care

I have received several phone calls in the last few weeks from young adults requesting information about their last vaccinations. They are travelling to areas of the world that suggest or require certain vaccines and do not remember if they had them or not. Others are applying for positions of employment which require travel and the employer’s human resources department needs the patient’s updated vaccination records.

When we tell them that we only have a record of the vaccinations we have given them in the office they act surprised. “You mean XXX hasn’t sent you a copy of my tetanus booster shot?” Others inquire if the travel health service they went to sends us a record of the vaccines they administered. The answer is “sometimes”.

The State of Florida instituted a website called Florida Shots for immunization records a few years back which is incomplete at best. At one time you received all your vaccinations and immunizations in the doctor’s office and a record was then maintained.

In the new world of consumer convenience first, pharmacies are paid by insurers for administering vaccines while the same shot given in your doctor’s office is not a covered service. In some cases, we have the childhood vaccination records from a pediatrician and a college health form updating us on meningitis and hepatitis A and B vaccines. Those adults out of college for more than seven years who do not have a copy of that form are just out of luck. This is a prime example of consumerism and convenience gone wild for no good reason

Another example is the creation of the BasicMed program allowing non-commercial pilots to obtain a medical certification to fly instead of going to a highly trained certified FAA Airmen Medical Examiner Physician (AME). If you have a driver’s license and pilot a plane for 6 or less passengers, which will not fly faster than 250 knots, or ascend above an altitude of 18,000 feet; you can go to any doctor with your driver’s license and be certified to fly.

Why would a pilot go to BasicMed rather than to a trained and certified and recertified physician in aerospace medicine? Probably because they are concerned that the trained physician will not pass them based on their health and the non-certified doctor will either go easier on them or just miss the problems that an AME might investigate.

 

This law was the result of lawsuits against the FAA by pilots not meeting the standards and resulted in Congress passing this private pilot friendly law. In recent years, expensive private flight schools have become the pathway for a student to eventually become a commercial airline pilot. They are replacing the previous pathway of hiring former military pilots who are more experienced, more disciplined and usually older and more mature than flight school candidates. This new breed of air transport pilot will now be sharing the skies with private civilian pilots receiving their medical clearance from less physicians with less aerospace medical knowledgeable. Is this not also convenience and consumerism gone wild?