In the interest of aviation safety

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At the recent South African Society for Aerospace Medicine (SASAEM) Conference (9-12 September, 2010) a symposium and specialist panel discussion was convened on ‘Psychological Assessment of Aircrew’. Professor Ann Edwards (in the Department of Psychology at Rhodes) and Dr Whitefield-Alexander (one of her former research students) were invited to present at the conference and to form part of the panel. The symposium was attended by the Senior Manager: Aviation Medicine of the SA Civil Aviation Authority, the Chief Medical Officer of South African Airways, Aeromedical Examiners from the Institute of Aviation Medicine and private practicing examiners. Also present were the keynote speaker, Dr John Caldwell, a psychologist renowned for his work on fatigue management and Prof Gary Kay, internationally recognised aviation neuropsychologist.

Provocatively, the title of their presentation was “The implementation of routine neurocognitive screening to improve aviation safety: An overdue aid to medical evaluation”.

The paper was presented against the background of a protracted process over the past 10 to 15 years by a few psychologists to re-awaken and redefine the role that psychology can play in aviation safety. Due to their efforts it is now acknowledged that Psychology is integral to flight safety, and that there is a need to ensure optimal function of aviation personnel from the neck upwards – whereas up to now (worldwide) there has been a neglect of this aspect as part of the routine medical check up. In other words, it appears seriously remiss not to ensure good brain function, while focusing exclusively on physiological parameters only such as blood pressure, cardiac and lung function, etc.

Professor Edwards put forward a proposal to initiate baseline screening of all aviation personnel with neurocognitive computerized testing, and to incorporate follow up neurocognitive screening as part of the routine medical examinations. The purpose would be to identify undisclosed, or as yet unidentified pathology that is causing cognitive decline, and therefore providing a threat to aviation safety. Such pathology might include HIV-AIDS, substance abuse, depression, early onset dementias, tumours, strokes and a host of other possible causes. Whereas it has been normal to investigate the KNOWN presence of brain disorder, routine checks for as yet unidentified disorder would be a first in the world. It would appear following this conference, that South African neuropsychology in conjunction with South African aviation medicine are poised to be the world leaders in this regard.

There appeared to be unanimous support in principle for such an initiative amongst the various aviation medical authorities present at the symposium, although it was cautioned that there are many hurdles to overcome in getting the process ‘off the ground’. Nevertheless, what is very encouraging is that after being mooted for many years, a Psychology Wing was formally established as part of the South African Aerospace Medicine Association (SAAsMA)society. Mr Trevor Reynolds, a Clinical Psychologist, was asked to convene the organisation of the Psychology Wing, and he has in turn co-opted Professor Edwards onto a committee to help steer the logistics and academic/research aspects of this process. The next SAASmA conference is scheduled as a satellite conference of the International Conference of Psychology (ICP) to be held in Cape Town in July 2012, providing further affirmation of the newfound reciprocity between Psychology and Aviation Medicine.