Takeaways from United's decision to drag doctor off plane

United Airlines Editorial
The United Airlines incident raises a question: Should doctors be exempt from getting bumped from flights? Photo: United Airlines

If you’ve watched the news, you’ve seen the disturbing cell phone video of a bloodied doctor being physically dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight.

A public relations disaster for United, the incident raises some questions, including whether doctors should be exempt from getting bumped from flights.

In this case, United overbooked a flight from Chicago to Louisville and had to remove four passengers involuntarily. Three passengers left willingly, but a fourth, a 69-year-old doctor named David Dao, refused to leave, saying he had to be at a hospital in the morning to care for patients. Chicago Aviation officers forcibly dragged him off the plane, a scene caught on camera by a passenger’s cellphone.

Should the doctor have expected preferential treatment because of his profession? While doctors could once pull rank, that’s no longer the case, ethics experts told Medscape Medical News.

Times have changed since he graduated from medical school in 1970, Stuart Youngner, M.D., a professor of bioethics and psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, told the publication.  "Doctors were treated like gods. We didn't get speeding tickets. We stepped to the front of the line. We double-parked with an 'M.D. on call' sign in the car. Those days are long gone,” he said.

Aside from the lesson that airlines should stop overbooking flights, there are some takeaways for physicians from the incident, according to Physicians Practice. For one, remember that cell phones with the ability to record anyone’s actions are everywhere so be aware of your behavior.

Second, if you need to apologize for an action, be sincere. United’s CEO tried to defend the airline’s behavior and called Dao belligerent when he just should have been more apologetic, the publication said. Given the firestorm of bad publicity, he has since changed his tone.

And maybe it’s time for physician practices to rethink their own double-booking policies. Instead, practices can implement a policy to charge patients who miss appointments, the article suggested. Overbooking can lead to physician burnout and stress, and it can also result in unhappy patients in the waiting room.