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Survey researches when aviators seek medical helpSurvey researches when aviators seek medical help

Pilots can participate through March 1Pilots can participate through March 1

Are pilots honest with their medical care professional or do they think it’s in their best interest to dance around potentially serious health issues? That’s what University of North Dakota aviation graduate, U.S. Air Force member, and medical student Billy Hoffman aims to find out with a short online survey available through March 1.

University of North Dakota aviation graduate Billy Hoffman switched careers to medicine and initiated a simple health survey on pilots' attitudes about seeking medical care. The survey is expected to close March 1. Photo courtesy of Billy Hoffman.

When Hoffman was an undergraduate in Grand Forks, North Dakota, he heard about a disturbing study that seemed to indicate military pilots were reluctant to disclose certain ailments to their airman medical examiners. After Hoffman switched careers to the medical field, he wondered if civilian pilots acted the same way.

He said his roommates at UND were all pilots and Hoffman initially discussed the idea with them before graduating. “It’s logical that military and professional pilots would be hesitant to divulge certain information to a doctor because they are afraid to lose their aviation license or their livelihood,” he told to AOPA. “It is known that in the military world, there’s a hesitance of pilots seeking care from doctors because they can be grounded for seeking such assistance. Our study seeks to explore if this is going on in the civilian world.”

After he established himself in medical school, Hoffman, along with his clinical advisor Aykut Üren of Georgetown University Medical Center, and fellow medical student Nikhil Chervu, determined that a survey geared toward pilots’ health attitudes could illuminate a trend for further research. The trio aimed to discover if “delayed treatment or non-treatment for pilots with potentially serious ailments” was a factor in attitudes toward visiting a health care professional, said Hoffman.

“It’s logical that pilots would be afraid for their job security or their hobby,” he theorized. “It’s not in their best interest to disclose certain ailments because they know it’ll be disqualifying for flight privileges.”

The researchers chose a scenario that included chest pains. The questions ask participants at what stage would they seek medical help. Hoffman explained that certain heart ailments could result in significant scar tissue if treatment were delayed and could further affect one’s health.

“It’s common knowledge that it [chest pain] is associated with heart attacks,” wrote Üren. Chest pain, coronary artery disease, and myocardial infarctions are "potentially medically disqualifying conditions,” according to the FAA, he added. He also explained that the duration of time between "symptom onset and medical intervention" could result in “poorer outcomes.”

The researchers considered several additional factors while analyzing results: Males generally wait longer to see a physician than females; males in aviation careers currently outnumber females by a large margin; and “a senior pilot might be much more honest with their doctor than a junior pilot” seeking to build flight experience, Hoffman added.

“We’ve had almost 1,000 people take our survey, which is remarkable,” said Hoffman, but he was also “unsettled” by the preliminary results. The team plans to publish their findings in a medical journal when the survey is complete.

“If they [pilots] are going to self-incriminate themselves, then maybe there’s a better way to assess their medical status,” noted Hoffman. “It’s in everybody’s interests to have healthy pilots.”

David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a seaplane-rated private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.
Topics: Pilot Health and Medical Certification, Aviation Industry

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