Access to Healthcare at 35,000 Feet

Updated on November 4, 2023

Air travel is an essential part of connecting people and places around the world. However, like most things, air travel can come with its own set of hiccups. Today, 11 of every 100,000 flights are diverted due to an in-flight medical emergency, costing airlines upwards of $893,000. While flight crews are trained in basic first aid, having real time access to on the ground trained medical professionals could save lives. 

Current access to in-flight telemedicine

In 2004, legislation passed requiring all commercial airlines in the United States to carry automated external defibrillators on board and train their staff to use them. These devices have proven time and time again to be lifesaving during sudden cardiac arrest mid-flight. However, since being paired with the in-flight medical kits not much has changed in the last twenty years in regard to the medical care that can be provided in-flight. With our advancements in technology, it is time airlines equip their planes with new telemedicine equipment in order to protect lives. 

Next generation of in-flight high-speed internet 

As airlines continue to upgrade passengers in flight experiences with benefits like live TV entertainment and faster Wi-Fi, expectations for being able to support medical emergencies have increased. The next generation of high-speed internet service aboard aircrafts could include video-based telemedicine, which ensures faster and more reliable healthcare with on the ground medical professionals, enabling better outcomes during in-flight medical emergencies. 

So far, some major airlines have partnered with ground-based medical teams and providers who offer around the clock care. Services can provide voice or text directly to the company-issued mobile device using on board Wi-Fi. Through video consultations, medical teams can visually assess in-flight patients’ symptoms like shortness of breath, swelling and skin discoloration. While inflight treatment is limited without a physician onboard, emerging point-of-care diagnostics, specialized equipment, and IT integration could expand capabilities. 

At the forefront of this evolution are devices like the Butterfly iQ, a handheld wireless ultrasound probe. This device provides real-time imagery of cardiovascular, abdominal, or even traumatic issues. When paired with a clinician guiding the process remotely, urgent medical situations can be assessed and diagnosed with unprecedented precision. Further enhancing this remote diagnostic toolkit are digital stethoscopes, like the Eko DUO. Unlike traditional stethoscopes, these internet-connected amplifiers are capable of transmitting the intricate sounds of the heart, lungs, and bowel. Such a capability proves invaluable when a visual assessment might overlook certain abnormalities.

The journey of monitoring doesn’t end there. Wearable patches have emerged as silent sentinels, continuously tracking vital signs such as oxygen saturation, pulse, blood pressure, and temperature. This real-time data stream equips doctors to make informed treatment decisions, even from thousands of miles away. For passengers experiencing unsettling symptoms like chest pain mid-flight, portable electrocardiograms stand as an essential diagnostic tool. These devices are adept at identifying arrhythmias, ischemia, or myocarditis, ensuring that the necessary medical information reaches clinicians without delay. And then there’s the realm of the unseen, where smart pill cameras come into play. Once ingested, these diminutive devices embark on a journey through the gastrointestinal tract, capturing images that can reveal the causes behind symptoms like nausea or pain.

Yet, for all their potential, these innovations hinge on one foundational element: a robust, high-speed internet connection. Current on-board Wi-Fi offerings, while serviceable, often lack the consistency and bandwidth necessary to support such advanced telemedicine platforms. The promise of next-generation connectivity solutions will be the linchpin in truly unlocking the potential of these medical marvels in the skies. For example, we have recently worked with a leading freight railroad to optimize throughput of connectivity for their entire rail network.  This included customizing hardware from manufacturing partners and augmenting through both software and firmware programming that allowed us to dynamically control telemetry data on network usage. This optimized which carrier could provide better throughput and bandwidth and triggering services provider switching in real-time as the trains are moving. 

The future of in-flight telemedicine & its impact on people’s lives

In-flight telemedicine can allow passengers to feel more comfortable when stepping onto a plane and can save airlines time, money and even improve their reputation. Depending on the situation they may no longer need to worry about waiting for an emergency landing to receive proper medical care, instead they can receive it near-instantly. If people feel comfortable with telemedicine appointments on the ground, why can’t they also have them 35,000 feet in the air?  

Robert Kim
Robert Kim

Robert Kim, Chief Technology Officer at Presidio advises clients on how to accelerate digital transformation and use technology to drive organizational outcomes. He evaluates IT trends and clients’ specific challenges with the goal of optimizing key business processes to improve end-user experiences, accelerate innovation and create market differentiation. Prior to joining Presidio in 2016, Rob held leadership positions at technology management and consulting firms, with roles in sales engineering, business development, operational excellence, and financial management. He graduated from Penn State with a Bachelor’s of Science and earned his MBA at Drexel University.

Saba Dovlatabadi
Saba Dovlatabadi

Saba Dovlatabadi is a multifaceted leader with over 15 years of experience leading international teams and developing corporate strategy. He is currently a Senior Solutions Architect at Presidio, where he defines business requirements and go-to-market strategies for their digital services portfolio. His experience spans across hyper-scaling startups to building high-performing teams within large enterprises to optimize processes. His diverse background includes expertise in sales enablement, mergers and acquisitions, financial analysis, and strategic planning implementation. Saba holds an MBA and MSc in Finance along with certifications across a multitude of practices and technologies. Outside of work, he serves on advisory boards focused on digital curriculum development.