For many people, a cruise is the ultimate dream holiday. What better way is there to escape from it all than setting sail into the deep blue unknown, and conducting a tour of beauty spots and iconic cultural destinations?
There are drawbacks to traveling by sea, however. Should you fall ill or have an accident, that blissful isolation suddenly becomes a major handicap. Instead of strolling the deck at sunset and setting ashore on paradise islands, you will probably find yourself cooped up in a cabin for days on end.
Cruise ships are equipped to provide medical care to passengers who need them. The major lines will all employ at least one doctor who lives and works on board, along with several nurses who together staff an onboard combined surgery and infirmary.
Staff are on call 24 hours a day. The main focus is to provide general care for common ailments, and also emergency intervention to stabilize patients who fall seriously ill or suffer a bad accident. Most of the major lines follow guidelines set by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) in recruiting staff with relevant experience in general and emergency medicine.
The ACEP also provides guidelines for how onboard infirmaries should be equipped. Cruise ships will also have a pharmacy which will dispense common medicines as prescribed.
When You Fall Ill
The most common remedy for people who fall ill on a cruise is, following medical assessment and treatment, to be confined to their cabin. Cruise ships are essentially tight-knit enclosed communities, so communicable diseases like flu and norovirus pose a major nuisance. Efforts are therefore made to contain outbreaks by keeping patients away from other passengers.
The ship’s medical center is only equipped to treat minor nonemergency issues and to stabilize patients with more serious health problems. For serious conditions and accidents, onboard medical teams are very much there to assess and stabilize. They do not have the resources to provide advanced care, so if they feel someone is seriously ill, their role will be to keep them comfortable until they can disembark at the next port.
Most cruise lines have clear policies for the conditions under which a passenger will be disembarked. For instance, if a life-threatening illness, such as a heart attack, occurs, they are unable to fully care and treat the patient on board. They choose to send the patient to the closest medical facility on land. In this unfortunate case, patients should have an up-to-date insurance and the contacts of their primary physician on hand.
It is important to know that cruise medical care doctors can make the necessary arrangements for transferring the patient to the nearest port, but the expenses will be covered by the passenger.
What Causes the Most Common Cruise Ship Illness
The most important health concerns related to cruise ship travel involve respiratory infections, GI or norovirus infections and easily-transmitted diseases such as varicella (chickenpox). Contagious diseases can spread easily on a cruise ship, as it often brings together travelers from various regions in a potentially enclosed and crowded space.
Port visits can also be a source of infection for travelers who are exposed to local viruses they were not previously vaccinated against. Another possible source of outbreaks onboard is the lack of preparation before booking the cruise. Those considering booking a place on a cruise ship should clearly understand that the ships’ medical capabilities are limited. As a result, they should consult their physician beforehand and be prepared.
Travelers who suffer from communicable diseases prior to the voyage should postpone their voyage until no longer contagious. Additionally, some groups (pregnant women, people who suffer from chronic health conditions, and the elderly) should ensure that their current physical health enables them to travel safely.
The Cost of Cruise Medical Care
Medical bills for onboard treatment are notoriously high. Most lines claim to base their charges on the market cost of private medical care, but suggestions are that in most cases they are higher. Even minor issues, such as seasickness, can add a strain on the traveler’s budget, as not all cruise lines offer free medication such as Bonine or Dramamine. Passengers can only buy a limited number of over-the-counter medications, generally at a much higher rate from regular prices. Also, the fees for purchasing pills can be high and sometimes non-reimbursed through health insurance.
Where costs really spiral is in more serious cases where a ship may need to divert so a patient can disembark. The costs of interrupting the schedule will be added to the medical bill.
That is why it is important to get specialist cruise travel insurance. Standard health insurance will not cover you, and the medical indemnities included in standard travel insurance policies could still leave you footing most of the bill. Cruise insurance provides a higher level of medical and repatriation cover.