Ever wondered what happens if you start to feel unwell and you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest doctor’s office? Is it something you need to worry about on a cruise?
In short, no it’s not – every major cruise line has some form of medical staff to look after you if you aren’t well, either to provide you with treatment to help you to recover, or to keep you safe until you reach the next port and can be transferred to a hospital if needed.
Let’s take a look at cruise ship doctors, including what they do and how they can help keep you healthy for your cruise holiday.
Are Cruise Ships Required To Have Doctors?
Any cruise line that is a part of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is required to have medical staff on board that meet the guidelines of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).
This only applies if the ship has more than 100 passengers, though – otherwise, it is not a requirement. In most cases, even small ships will have someone medically trained on board, particularly as they often sail to more remote destinations.
The requirements also state that medical care must be available 24/7 and that the medical staff must be proficient in the dominant language spoken on the ship.
Do All Cruise Ships Have Doctors?
All cruise ships with at least 100 passengers on board will have a doctor trained in emergency care. Smaller ships can vary, but most will still employ at least one medical professional, as they have a duty of care to their passengers.
To put it bluntly, it would cost a cruise line a lot more money if they were sued for negligence than it would to employ a doctor, which is why most small ships will still have a doctor or nurse on-board.
But larger ships will have a team of doctors to keep everyone on board safe.
How Many Doctors Does a Cruise Ship Have?
Typically, a cruise ship will have two doctors onboard, or at least one doctor and one nurse. A senior doctor will be primarily responsible for the passengers, while a junior doctor or nurse will care for the staff and cover the senior doctor when needed. Larger ships may have more doctors.
Not every cruise line publishes the exact number of doctors on board, but Royal Caribbean is a good guideline since they own the largest ships in the sea. The cruise line states that there will be one to three doctors on board, as well as three to five nurses.
Doctors are available 24/7, but as you’d expect (especially on ships with only one doctor), they won’t always be found in the medical station. They need to sleep, too! Typically, a doctor will have two open-door surgeries during the day, one every morning and one every afternoon.
For the rest of the time, they’ll be on call. You’ll be able to speak to a member of the crew who will be able to page the doctor, and they will return to the medical station to see you.
If you, unfortunately, fall very ill and you can’t leave your stateroom, the doctor will be able to visit you.
Cruise Ship Doctors Are on Call 24/7
On a recent cruise, my mum suffered an injury and needed to see an emergency doctor at 11 pm. The waiter who was first on the scene called the medical department, who called the ship’s nighttime supervisor. When she arrived, she called the on-call paramedic, who was woken up and arrived with a wheelchair.
Once we were taken to the medical centre, the paramedic assessed the wound and called for the doctor, who was also asleep at the time. They warned us beforehand that there would be an extra charge as it was out of hours.
Do Cruise Ships Have Hospitals?
There is no such thing as a cruise ship hospital, really. The ships will have a medical area but it will be one or two rooms at most. If a guest is seriously injured, they will be airlifted off the ship to be transported to a hospital.
Otherwise, if a guest is unwell but doesn’t need emergency hospital treatment, they’ll be asked to remain in their cruise stateroom until they can be disembarked for transport to hospital on land.
What Type of Doctor Works on a Cruise Ship?
Doctors on cruise ships are classified as emergency physicians. This means they are trained in emergency care, but they will also cover family and internal medicine. Ships that allow children will also employ doctors certified in pediatric care.
Cruise ship doctors are certainly talented – they aren’t the typical doctor you would see for regular appointments. As well as diagnosis, they must also be trained in cardiovascular treatments (including advanced trauma life support), sedation, and minor surgery too.
This makes them closer to the doctors who would treat you in an emergency department of a hospital.
There’s a lot that can happen at sea, and you might be a few days’ travel from the nearest hospital. But you can’t be expected to be airlifted to land for a minor to medium injury – that’s only for patients whose life is at risk.
This means cruise ship doctors must be capable of a lot of treatments to keep you safe.
What Does a Cruise Ship Doctor Do?
Cruise ship doctors have a number of responsibilities, including diagnosing passengers who have a bacterial or viral infection (and recommending quarantine if needed), minor surgical procedures, stabilization, emergency trauma treatment and more.
There’s no ‘typical’ day for a cruise ship doctor. One day, they might see five people complaining about seasickness, and the next, there might be a passenger with a medical emergency like a heart attack or stroke that requires urgent care until they can be transferred to the hospital.
Accidents are rare at sea, but can sometimes happen at port – especially if you take part in any active shore excursions and don’t heed the safety advice! So, cruise ship doctors might also offer treatments for sprains and minor fractures.
And when we say that cruise ship doctors are required for minor surgery, this doesn’t mean anything big – examples from job descriptions include the removal of foreign objects and the stitching of cuts.
Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that senior doctors on a cruise ship are officers – and so another duty is to attend gala parties and other officer-level events as they are able to. That doesn’t mean you can walk up to them and ask about your ingrown toenail at a party though!
Do You Have To Pay To See a Doctor on a Cruise Ship?
You do have to pay to see a doctor on a cruise ship. Essential treatment is normally covered by your travel insurance, but it’s important that you check your policy for any exclusions. Normally, you have to pay upfront for treatment and then claim it back from your insurance.
This can be stressful since you might get a large bill, but it’s the way it works with most medical insurance. The cruise line will assist you if you need to speak to family members or your bank to arrange a loan in the case of serious treatment that costs a lot.
Suggested read: Do You Need Cruise Travel Insurance?
How Much Does It Cost To See a Doctor on a Cruise Ship?
Costs to see a doctor vary by cruise line, but expect to pay around $100 for a consultation during office hours. You may pay more for a visit outside of opening times and more again for a visit to your stateroom. Treatments then cost more, too.
Cruise ships do have a pharmacy on board, stocked with various medications that you can purchase if they are needed. Some cruise ships will give out anti-seasickness medication for free (although you may need to pay for the consultation with the doctor first if you need the seasickness injection).
If you just need seasickness tablets, you can get these from the medical centre on board. There may be a small change, but in rough seas, the seasickness medication is usually given out free of charge.
Medical treatments on cruise ships can be costly – if you need an x-ray, it will likely cost between $100 and $150.
Life-saving treatment can cost thousands of dollars, and if you need to be airlifted to a hospital, expect it to cost around $20,000, or even into six figures if you’re somewhere remote.
And unfortunately, payment is expected upfront for a lot of these, or at least immediately after treatment, even if your bill rises into the thousands. You can then claim it back from your travel insurance or health insurance (or a combination of both), depending on where you live and where you are treated.
No cruise ship would allow someone to die or be seriously ill without treating them, but if you can’t pay immediately then they will start to ask you for payment information as soon as you are recovered/stable.
Can Cruise Ship Doctors Prescribe Antibiotics?
Cruise ship doctors can prescribe antibiotics, so if they deem you have an infection then they can provide you with the medication immediately. If you are already taking antibiotics but lose your tablets, you can get replacements from the ship’s medical centre but expect to pay for a consultation and your tablets too.
One common illness that requires antibiotics and can seriously ruin a vacation is a tooth infection or abscess. And while cruise ships don’t have a dentist on board, a doctor can at least prescribe the antibiotics needed to kill off the infection, ready for you to receive the necessary treatment after your cruise ends.
How To Become a Cruise Ship Doctor
If you want to become a cruise ship doctor, you’re going to need at least three years’ experience as a doctor, including experience working in primary and emergency care, with some anaesthetics experience too.
The best background would be an emergency doctor, but if you’ve only worked in primary care then you can seek to gain the necessary experience in emergency and anaesthetics through other means too.
If you have the experience, then it’s worth getting in touch with cruise lines directly. They will advertise positions on their own websites, but with medical positions being rare, it’s a good idea to register your interest early – the cruise line will normally then contact you first when a position opens up.
Learn more about cruise ship doctor salaries and benefits here, and if you want to apply then start contacting those cruise lines!
- Cruise Ship Doctors: Salary, Benefits & How To Get A Job
- Cruise Ship Norovirus Statistics & How to Avoid Sickness
- Taking a Baby on a Cruise Ship? Read This First!
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Jenni Fielding is the founder of Cruise Mummy. She has worked in the cruise industry since 2015 and has taken over 30 cruises. Now, she helps over 1 million people per month to plan their perfect cruise holidays.