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Airborne diagnosis via Internet


Invention could curb unscheduled airline landings

November 4, 1997
Web posted at: 3:50 p.m. EST (2050 GMT)

From Correspondent Brian Nelson

SAN JOSE, California (CNN) -- In a medical emergency aboard an aircraft, an ailing passenger's best hope has always been to have a doctor nearby. But at 30,000 feet, doctors face conflicting priorities: making a medical decision in the passenger's best interests or saving the airline the cost of diverting the aircraft to the closest airport.

In-flight procedure

Dr. Alex Gandsas has had to make that decision. While caring for a sick passenger on an airplane, the Pontiac, Michigan, physician was told that landing at an unscheduled location would cost the airline $15,000 because the pilot would have to dump fuel.

Gandsas, who also was concerned he didn't have the right equipment to make a proper diagnosis, thought there had to be a better way. Now, he and partner Kevin Montgomery of San Jose, California, think they've found it.

In July, they boarded a regularly scheduled American Airlines flight to test their theory. With them were a laptop computer and medical equipment, to which Gandsas was wired.

See the in-flight test
video icon 400K/39 sec./320x240
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QuickTime movie

Using the seat phone, they beamed his vital medical signs -- including pulse, EKG and lung performance -- from the air to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) on the ground.

From there, the information traveled via the Net to American Airlines headquarters and to waiting doctors in California and Argentina for diagnosis.

For Montgomery, the successful experiment brought a wave of relief. "If we had failed that day, we would have never gotten to try this on another flight."


The two inventors estimate it would cost no more than $10,000 for an airline to install airborne medical monitors in each of its planes. Gandsas and Montgomery consider it a reasonable expense that would, in the long run, save money and lives.

The Federal Aviation Administration, however, is concerned the bulky technology might not be practical in the cramped space of an airplane. "You are trying to practice medicine in what amounts to a closet," says the FAA's Dr. Jerry Hordinsky.

There's also the question of making the system simple enough for flight personnel to use when no doctor is aboard. U.S. airlines are looking over the invention, but so far, there are no takers.

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