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LOSING THEIR WINGS: A Pilot's Fear of Losing Medical Clearance

Updated: May 23, 2023


 

Comments on FAA's social media post regarding their HIMS Program
Comments on FAA's social media post regarding their HIMS Program

Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has shared its "Human Intervention and Motivation Study (HIMS)" program on social media, which aims to address substance abuse and mental health issues in pilots. While this program may seem promising, it has sparked heated debates, with some questioning its effectiveness and cost.


In this blog, we will take a closer look at the HIMS program and explore the criticisms surrounding it. But before we dive into the criticisms surrounding it, let's first take a closer look at what the HIMS program is all about.


Delving Into the Purpose of the HIMS Program


The HIMS program has three key objectives.


First, it focuses on prevention, providing education, training, and support to pilots to prevent substance abuse and mental health issues from arising. By establishing best practices and policies, the FAA aims to create a supportive environment for pilots.


Secondly, the program facilitates the identification of pilots who may be struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. Regular testing and monitoring, along with a confidential reporting system, help detect potential problems early on and provide the necessary assistance.


Lastly, the HIMS program offers comprehensive treatment and support. It connects pilots with medical professionals, rehabilitation programs, and ongoing monitoring to ensure their well-being and fitness to fly.



Now that we have an understanding of what the HIMS program is about, let's delve into the reasons behind the backlash it has received.

Pilot navigating
Pilot navigating


The Ongoing Dilemma Faced By Pilots in the HIMS Program


While the HIMS program holds promise, it's not without its share of criticism. A prominent concern revolves around its extensive and expensive nature.


In a recent study by Scientific American, among the 3,500 US pilots, 56 percent of the pilots freely admitted to some sort of health care avoidance behavior, while 26 percent reported that they had withheld information during their FAA health checkups for the same reason: the fear of losing their medical clearance (Hoffman, 2022).


Also sometimes called, "losing their wings".


According to the same article, the FAA prohibits pilots from operating flights if they disclose receiving regular therapy for even mild anxiety or depression.


This could result in a suspension for months, and sometimes years based on the presumption that they present an unacceptable danger to flight safety.


While it makes sense to ground a pilot in distress, the current system often fails to recognize the dynamic and often situational nature of mental health symptoms and often drives pilots from seeking care. Time off the job can have negative repercussions such as loss of pay and the need for recurrent training and the expenses of additional medical evaluation required by the FAA often fall onto the pilot (Hoffman, 2022)


According to ecfr.gov Part 67 - Medical Standards and Certification, medical conditions like psychosis, severe personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and substance dependence (except where there is established clinical evidence of recovery or abstinence for at least 2 years) lead to an automatic disqualification of a pilot from receiving an FAA medical certificate and prohibits them from flying.


The Costly Nature of HIMS


In addition to the risk of losing their license, another significant issue with the HIMS program is the financial burden it places on pilots.


According to centerforfamilymed.org, the HIMS Program is both lengthy and costly and is NOT covered by health insurance. This includes fees to:


➡️ alcohol/substance abuse treatment

➡️ aftercare (in addition to AA/NA participation)

➡️ abstinence confirmation (alcohol spot-testing, and DOT drug testing)

➡️ neuropsychological testing

➡️ annual HIMS psychiatric evaluation

➡️ HIMS AME visits*


This answers why aside from pilots withholding information in fear of losing their medical clearance (a clearance that allows them to fly a plane), there is also the issue of the program being funded by the pilots themselves.


What Can Be Done?


The FAA should create additional changes in its policy to permit pilots with mild symptoms to receive ongoing and potentially extended therapy sessions without the risk of losing their medical certification.


This change in policy can benefit pilots by offering preventive treatment for symptom worsening, routine mental health evaluations by a professional mental health provider, promoting healthy flying, and can ultimately enhance safety standards instead of keeping pilots in the dark by suppressing mental health problems to protect their career in the aviation industry.


Share Your Thoughts


What are your thoughts on this controversial aspect of the HIMS program? Is it a promise for safety or a burden for pilots?


 

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REFERENCES:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/we-need-to-change-the-system-that-keeps-pilots-from-seeking-mental-health-care/

https://centerforfamilymed.org/our-services/aviation-medical-exams/about-our-hims-program/

https://www.flyingmag.com/why-pilots-dont-want-to-talk-about-mental-health-and-why-they-should/

https://www.faa.gov/pilot-mental-fitness

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