Chief Medical Officer delivers the Stewart Memorial Lecture

05 March 2014
  • Dr John Roberts looked at the issues faced by aviation medicine experts when planning for the future
  • Discussed the rapid changes in technology and the impact these are having on controllers in an operational environment

Dr John Roberts, Chief Medical Officer, NATS Occupational Heath Services and Aero-Medical Centre, delivered the Stewart Memorial Lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society yesterday evening, 4 March, and discussed the impact of modern technologies on the human element of air traffic control.

As the air traffic control industry becomes increasingly modernised, the role of controllers themselves is expected to change and become less tactical. According to Dr Roberts, this evolution will impact aviation medicine and the experts working in the field. Areas of particular concern include change management, fatigue, medical standards and demographics, all of which he spoke about in great detail.

During his presentation, Dr Roberts talked about the importance of change management as new technologies are introduced and the significance of involving operational employees in the early planning stages in order to avoid feelings of stress and worry. He emphasised that is important to look at personal adaptability as well as re-thinking the required skill sets needed for future controllers, something the NATS Human Factors team is already addressing.

Dr Roberts also touched upon fatigue, always an area of focus in air traffic management, and the need to recognise that learning new procedures requires increased mental capacity, which in itself is tiring. More evidence is most certainly needed to quantify fatigue and identify safe working practices in view of potential future demands.

Dr John Roberts, Chief Medical Officer, NATS Occupational Heath Services and Aero-Medical Centre.

Dr John Roberts, Chief Medical Officer, NATS Occupational Heath Services and Aero-Medical Centre.

Addressing current medical standards, he raised concerns over the historic decision to medically regulate controllers with standards very similar to commercial pilots. According to Dr Roberts, increasing safeguards that have been indirectly introduced through the use of new technologies make the prescriptive standards no longer appropriate, a thought that has been recently proven by joint research undertaken by NATS and the CAA.

While safety is always the priority, current medical standards may lead to controllers being unfairly excluded from an operational environment. It is therefore imperative for medical regulators to review standards and adapt them to reflect the risks involved in actual work practices in order to avoid unnecessary discrimination.

Discrimination, and in particular age discrimination was the closing topic of Dr Roberts’ lecture, as he underlined the theoretical possibility of changing work practices to reduce fatigue and pressure on older controllers so that they can continue to work in an operational environment for as long as it is safe for them to do so.

While European legislation has made age discrimination illegal, evidence suggests that cognitive decline for some tasks begins in the early 30s so instead of making aging a medical issue, Dr Roberts suggested that employers in the industry look at ways of dealing with this based on competency.

Speaking to peers and enthusiasts in the aviation industry, Dr Roberts’ lecture raised some thought-provoking questions as modernisation and new technologies impact upon air traffic management and the people working in the industry. He commented, “The role of air traffic control and associated medical issues within this sector of the aviation industry are perhaps not as well recognised as they should be by the aviation medicine community, so it was an honour to have the opportunity to deliver the Stewart Memorial Lecture. Air traffic management has come a long way in a short time and it is important to identify the challenges faced by aviation medicine experts in the future. Hopefully, this lecture can act as a springboard for further discussions and debate.”

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