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07 Apr 2015

The AMA has warned that calls for the mandatory disclosure of information around the mental health of airline flight crew could dissuade troubled pilots from seeking necessary treatment.

There have been proposals to require treating doctors to report airline pilots and flight engineers who have mental health problems following the deliberate downing of a Germanwings airliner carrying 150 passengers and crew in the French Alps late last month.

Investigators have concluded that 27-year-old co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately flew the Airbus A320 plane into the side of a mountain on 25 March after locking the plane’s captain out of the cockpit. All on board were killed.

It has been reported that Mr Lubitz suffered bouts of depression, was concerned about his eyesight, and had received treatment for suicidal tendencies before obtaining his pilot’s license.

Last week Germanwings’ parent company Lufthansa revealed that Mr Lubtiz had notified the company of his struggle with depression during his pilot training course in 2009.

The case has prompted some to call for laws requiring medical practitioners to report pilots being treated for mental illness to aviation authorities.

But the AMA and other medical experts have questioned the necessity or usefulness of such a measure.

Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine President Dr Ian Cheng told Medical Observer Designated Aviation Medical Examiners who gave pilots their compulsory annual health checks were already legally obliged to report any significant health condition.

Dr Cheng said that before Australian aviation authorities decided several years ago to allow pilots to continue flying after a depression diagnosis, as long as they were receiving treatment and met strict conditions, the problem had been driven underground because pilots with depression were afraid of losing their license.

AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis warned against any rush to institute mandatory reporting obligations for airline pilots receiving medical treatment.

“Doctors may disclose information about a patient’s medical record if they judge there is a serious threat to the life, health or safety of an individual or the public,” Dr Parnis told Medical Observer. “The last thing we want is a shopping list of things requiring mandatory reporting. That would undermine the confidence of the patient in the doctor.”

The AMA Vice President said mandatory reporting rules for medical practitioners had been blamed for deterring some doctors from seeking help, and there could be a similar risk with such rules for pilots.

Revelations that Mr Lubitz had notified Lufthansa about his battles with depression is likely to intensify the focus on how to best monitor and manage pilots with mental health issues.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 07 Apr 2015