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What are the Roles and Duties of a Flight Nurse

Career News October 27, 2013


A Flight Nurse is essentially an emergency room nurse on an airplane or helicopter. With a simple definition, this role is very important — it is important in cases of evacuation disaster medical emergency situations. It is a supporting role responsible for the safe transport of patients far from medical facilities, while stabilizing their medical condition and keeping them comfortable.

Who does a Flight Nurse do?

The Flight Nurse is part of a team working with one or more patients at a time. The team can consist of nurses, physicians, paramedics and nurse practitioners. Unlike their roles on the ground, this team must work within the confines of an aircraft or helicopter, using the equipment and supplies immediately available to them.

Each person on the team has their own responsibilities. Teams often train together to create the rhythm needed to quickly respond to a medical emergency on the flight. In close quarters, it’s important that decisions get made promptly and actions taken immediately.

The responsibilities of this role follow a similar flow for each patient:

•Prepare the patient for transport in the airplane or helicopter
•Secure the patient within the aircraft so they don’t move around during the flight
•Give nursing care as required to help the patient be comfortable during the flight
•Perform duties as directed to stabilize any medical condition
•Help transport the patient from the aircraft to an ambulance or emergency room

The goal of this team is to stabilize the patient’s condition so they can be safely transported to a facility where they will receive treatment.

The Flight Nurse may also participate in flights that are simply to transport patients to another location. For instance, they could support a heart transplant recipient as they are transported to the facility where the surgery will happen.

The level of responsibility of the Flight Nurse varies depending on the availability of physicians on board. For instance, if there is not a physician on the flight, the Flight Nurse may communicate the patient’s condition to physicians on the ground who will direct the nurse to take specified actions.

In addition to the general nursing practices, a Flight Nurse is expected to be experienced in emergency care activities such as:

•Using equipment to resuscitate the patient in case they stop breathing or their heart stops beating
•Stabilizing the patient with medications
•Stopping bleeding and administering fluids
•Stabilizing fractures and cleaning wounds
•Assessing the patient’s condition for life threatening situations such as hypothermia or seizures

Throughout all of this, the Flight Nurse must keep good records as to the actions taken by the team and the condition of the patient. This will help the team receiving the patient to continue their treatment. The Flight Nurse may also need to record the supplies used so they can be restocked to make the aircraft ready for the next flight.

What education is needed to become a Flight Nurse?

A minimum of a bachelor’s degree in nursing will be needed. Since this is a competitive field (there aren’t that many positions open across the country), a masters degree may be requested. The person must have experience working as a nurse, from two to five years, depending on the facility. They must also have post-graduate training in advanced nursing practices.

Facilities prefer experience in an emergency room or acute care unit. Training in emergency care, cardiac care, respiratory care or intensive care is required. Getting certificates in some of the specialty care areas is also helpful. Various certificate programs are available for critical care nursing, cardiac care nursing and emergency room nursing.

This nurse must be comfortable working in a team environment. Seminars or workshops on team medicine are available and will be viewed favorably on a Flight Nurse application.

The advanced nursing education is not only useful in the Flight Nurse role, but can open doors in other critical care nursing.

Where do Flight Nurses work?

This is a very expensive service so it is usually the large metropolitan areas that support medical flights. Large hospitals and teaching universities can support air transport. These units may be owned and controlled by the facility, or contracted out to an air ambulance service. In the case of a contracted service, hospital flight staff may work with the contract company medical team on the flight.

Since emergencies can at happen any time, the medical flight team is on call and must be available to go at a moment’s notice. There are no shift changes mid-flight so there is the potential for long hours. When not attending to a medical flight, the Flight Nurse may work in the emergency room or critical care unit.

What is the career outlook for Flight Nurses?

The US Department of Labor – Bureau of Labor Statistics says that registered nurses will see an increase in demand for their services through the year 2020. The Flight Nurse is a highly specialized role, few exist throughout the US and they are all highly competitive. Because of the expense of this role, it is unlikely that the demand for Flight Nurses will increase much more than average.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average median salary for a registered nurse is $64,690. Flight Nurses are paid more than the average due to their advanced nursing education. On top of the nursing salary, facilities often pay the Flight Nurse additional for each flight on which they participate.

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