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Canadian Respiratory Journal
Volume 16 (2009), Issue 4, Pages 119-124
Original Article

Predicting the Need for Supplemental Oxygen During Airline Flight in Patients with Chronic Pulmonary Disease: A Comparison of Predictive Equations and Altitude Simulation

Ana C Bradi,1 Marie E Faughnan,2 Matthew B Stanbrook,1 Eva Deschenes-Leek,2 and Kenneth R Chapman1

1Asthma and Airway Centre, University Health Network, Toronto Western Hospital, Canada
2Division of Respirology, Department of Medicine, St Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Accepted 5 December 2008

Copyright © 2009 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


BACKGROUND: Patients with chronic pulmonary diseases are at increased risk of hypoxemia when travelling by air. Screening guidelines, predictive equations based on ground level measurements and altitude simulation laboratory procedures have been recommended for determining risk but have not been rigorously evaluated and compared.

OBJECTIVES: To determine the adequacy of screening recommendations that identify patients at risk of hypoxemia at altitude, to evaluate the specificity and sensitivity of published predictive equations, and to analyze other possible predictors of the need for in-flight oxygen.

METHODS: The charts of 27 consecutive eligible patients referred for hypoxia altitude simulation testing before flight were reviewed. Patients breathed a fraction of inspired oxygen of 0.15 for 20 min. This patient population was compared with the screening recommendations made by six official bodies and compared the partial pressure of arterial oxygen (PaO2) obtained during altitude simulation with the PaO2 predicted by 16 published predictive equations.

RESULTS: Of the 27 subjects, 25% to 33% who were predicted to maintain adequate oxygenation in flight by the British Thoracic Society, Aerospace Medical Association or American Thoracic Society guidelines became hypoxemic during altitude simulation. The 16 predictive equations were markedly inaccurate in predicting the PaO2 measured during altitude simulation; only one had a positive predictive value of greater than 30%. Regression analysis identified PaO2 at ground level (r=0.50; P=0.009), diffusion capacity (r=0.56; P=0.05) and per cent forced expiratory volume in 1 s (r=0.57; P=0.009) as having predictive value for hypoxia at altitude.

CONCLUSIONS: Current screening recommendations for determining which patients require formal assessment of oxygen during flight are inadequate. Predictive equations based on sea level variables provide poor estimates of PaO2 measured during altitude simulation.