An expert in telemedicine is calling for airlines to share data on in-flight medical emergencies so on-board provision of equipment and medication can be brought up to date.

Presenting to his peers at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, UK last week, Dr James Ferguson said most air-ground medical services are "still working on decisions based on assumptions made 20-30 years ago", and the same is true of the contents of many on-board medical packs.

Airlines say that diverting an aircraft unnecessarily because of a perceived on-board medical emergency is costly and can introduce operational risks, but according to Ferguson there is no system for exchanging information on such incidents across the industry to enable equipment, training and practices to be optimised.

Ferguson, who works at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary (ARI) for the International Centre for Emergency Medicine and its aeromedical service TheFirstCall, was presenting the Royal Society of Medicine with the results of a five-year study produced by the ARI from data collected from all medical emergencies that the organisation has dealt with.

One of the findings quoted was that older travellers are no more likely than younger people to need emergency care en route. Ferguson says: "There is a misguided assumption that elderly people will be the cause of more emergency calls.

"We discovered that there is no relationship between old age and calls for assistance. In fact, the most common age group to experience difficulties is the 21- to 30-year-olds."

The most common ailment of all is diarrhoea, he reveals, and most on-board medical emergencies are the result of pre-existing conditions.

To reduce the likelihood of illness en route, Ferguson recommends better passenger education for people travelling who are sick, and more up-to-date training for flight attendants whom he believes should work with simple on-board aids to help them cope with incidents that arise in flight.

TheFirstCall says it believes that a global data sharing system across the industry would save lives, make medical care efficient and could kick-start a wider global database.

The company's chief executive Roderick MacDonald says: "Such a system would benefit remote services providers across many industries. The aviation and the marine industries already collaborate on engines, safety and interiors development, so why not in something as crucial as healthcare?"