Medical Care on a Cruise: What to Know

Health Writer

If you have a chronic condition, you might shy away from taking a cruise, imagining a nerve-wracking situation out on the open seas without the medical resources to handle a crisis. But cruise ship doctors are not lightweight “Love Boat” type docs, says Dr. John Bradberry, M.D., previous medical director for Carnival Cruise Lines and now a consultant for Maritime Medicine. He explains what you should know if you’re deciding to embark:

Q: What are some common misconceptions about onboard physicians and nurses?

John Bradberry, M.D. (JB): The largest misperception is that any physician on a cruise ship couldn’t make it as a “real doctor,” when that is far from the truth. In fact, to be a doctor on any of the major cruise lines, you need a minimum of three years experience in general medicine, and must also demonstrate high proficiency in emergency and critical care medicine.

The other misconception is that cruise ships don’t have the equipment you might need in an emergency. But they maintain a level of care equivalent to an intensive care unit. They also have advanced cardiac life support. Onboard pharmacies are fully stocked with a breadth of medications.

Q: Is there a way to compare cruise lines when it comes to medical resources that will be available?

JB: Check to make sure a cruise line is a member of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). To be a member, a cruise line must meet quality control standards that have been set by the American College of Emergency Physicians. These are very high standards to maintain, so if I were to see the seal of approval from CLIA, I would feel reassured by that. Most large lines are part of CLIA, but it’s good to check before choosing.

Q: What should someone with a chronic condition bring along on a cruise in terms of health information?

JB: It’s very important to have a list of medications, including names and dosing, as well as how often you take them. It’s amazing how often someone would come to us after losing a prescription and say only, “It’s a little, pink, round pill.” Best of all would be to keep your medications in their original prescription bottles so you have the name of your doctor and pharmacy available. Keep your meds in your carry-on bags, not your checked luggage.

Also, bring the names and phone numbers of your physicians. We do have satellite connections, so we can look up that information, but it’s so much faster and more helpful to have it handy.

Finally, if you have a cardiac issue, bring a paper copy of your most recent EKG if you can. That can be invaluable to a ship’s doctor if you’re having an incident, because he or she can compare a new EKG to the previous one.

Q: How concerned should a traveler be about catching a ship-wide sickness like norovirus?

The media has branded norovirus as a “cruise ship illness,” but only because it makes for a dramatic news story if that happens. They spin it as cruise ships being negligent or having contaminated food.

The fact is that there are 24 million cases of norovirus in the United States every year, and it happens in dorm rooms, hospitals, hotels, and anywhere people tend to congregate in large numbers. I’ve spent long periods of time on cruise ships and have never once contracted norovirus, but the last time my family stayed at a 5-star hotel, several members of our family got it from the Sunday brunch buffet. It’s very difficult to prevent if you’re not cooking your own food. If it does happen, then I’d suggest staying extra hydrated and not spending too much time outside your cabin, since it’s highly contagious.

Q: What’s your top tip for someone who’s traveling and concerned about a health event?

JB: Get travel insurance. Even though there are emergency services even on small islands that can help you get home, they don’t do charity work. If you need to be airlifted back to the United States, it can easily range between $10,000 to $20,000 just for transportation. Your regular health insurance might cover some of that, but in my experience, that’s rare. But travel insurance will. It’s better to play it safe than to be stuck with that kind of bill.

My other top tip is to try to enjoy yourself. You’re taking a cruise to relax and have fun. Be assured that in the very unlikely event that you experience an emergency, the medical personnel onboard are trained to handle it. Sometimes, just knowing that is enough to help you relax and make the most of your cruise time.

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Tips for Making Travel Less Stressful

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