Medical Issues

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Make Sure You're Protecting Your Medical Certification

August 26, 2010

As every pilot knows, two licenses are required to fly: a pilot certificate and a medical certificate. Ensuring that medical certification is valid and will be renewed is of paramount concern to all professional pilots and flight department managers, but the process is much murkier and risk-laden than the straightforward, clearly defined requirements for obtaining pilot certificates.

A recent webinar hosted by NBAA for its Members – "Protecting Your Medical Certification: Tips for Professional Pilots" – enlightened attendees about the many issues and concerns surrounding pilot health and safety and how to maintain compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations to ensure continuing medical certification. In addition, the webinar covered some key medical conditions that can affect pilots, but which with proper treatment and documentation don't have to mean loss of a medical certificate. These include diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea and clinical depression.

Two highly knowledgeable individuals in the field of aviation medicine presented the interactive webinar and answered individual attendee questions: Dr. Quay Snyder, MSPH, Associate Medical Advisor, and president and CEO of Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (formerly Virtual Flight Surgeons), and Dr. Gregory Pinnell, Senior Flight Surgeon, USAFR and Senior Aviation Medical Examiner.

According to Dr. Snyder, the importance of establishing a pilot health safety culture – including the implementation of an Aviation Safety Action Program like the ones used in the operational side of aviation – would go a long way toward saving lives, careers and money and would greatly contribute toward improved pilot health and performance. He discussed "pilot paranoia," or the common reluctance to take many medicines or undertake procedures that could be beneficial to health, because of the uncertainty of FAA policies. Dr. Snyder noted that even though FAR Part 67 only defines fifteen disqualifying conditions, there are in fact hundreds of disqualifying conditions and medications.

What's worse, most private physicians are often ignorant of FAA rules, resources are not readily available, and even many Aviation Medical Examiners (AME's) are unfamiliar with constantly changing FAA medical rules and policies, says Snyder. For example, the rules have recently changed regarding reporting of alcohol-related convictions: pilots must now report if they were arrested as part of a DUI.

So what's a pilot to do? In addition to advocating for a medical ASAP program, Dr. Snyder stressed the necessity of finding an experienced, knowledgeable AME that you can trust and establishing a long-term relationship with him or her.

NBAA Members can also take advantage of the Association's Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS) benefit – a 10% discount – which provides accurate, fast and confidential aeromedical advice and assistance to pilots, dispatchers, flight department managers, attorney, etc. at any time and from anywhere. To learn more about this benefit, visit: www.nbaa.org/membership/benefits/medical.

Dr. Pinnell concluded the webinar with a discussion of current and possible future FAA policies on several relatively common conditions. For example, properly controlled and adequately documented hypertension (high blood pressure) is not disqualifying and a medical should not need to be deferred. Regarding clinical depression, the FAA has also recently made some changes to its long-standing policy of not allowing any antidepressants under any condition: four antidepressant medications are now allowed, provided the pilot meets certain criteria. The agency has also put in place an amnesty program to allow pilots already taking antidepressants to come into compliance with the new program without referring the case for action, said Dr. Pinnell.