Testing the tests--an empirical evaluation of screening tests for the detection of cognitive impairment in aviators.
The FAA has expressed concern that flight safety could be compromised by undetected cognitive impairment in pilots due to conditions such as substance abuse, mental illness, and neuropsychological problems. Interest has been shown in the possibility of adding a brief "mini-mental exam," or a simple automated test-battery to the standard flight medical to screen for such conditions. The research reported here involved the empirical evaluation of two "mini-mental exams," two paper-and-pencil test batteries, and a prototype version of an automated screening battery. Sensitivity, specificity, and positive predictive value were calculated for each sub-task in a discriminant study of 54 pilots and 62 individuals from a heterogeneous clinical population. Results suggest that the "mini-mental exams" are poor candidates for a screening test. The automated battery showed the best discrimination performance, in part because of the incorporation of dual-task tests of divided attention performance. These tests appear to be particularly sensitive to otherwise difficult-to-detect cognitive impairments of a mild or subtle nature. The use of an automated battery of tests as a screening instrument does appear to be feasible in principle, but the practical success of a screening program is heavily dependent upon the actual prevalence of cognitive impairment in the medical applicant population.