Cruises: Falling ill on a cruise – are onboard doctors as safe as those at home?


Cruise holidays are the perfect opportunity for rest and relaxation. From onboard spas set to help passengers unwind to world-class restaurants serving global dishes often crafted by big-name chefs, thousands of people around the world are opting for cruise holidays every year. However, sometimes the unexpected can happen, and passengers take ill while travelling. Luckily, cruise ships tend to have their own onboard doctor-but just how safe are they?

In his book Cruise a la Carte, ex-cruise worker Brian David Bruns talks about the “fear” and “prejudice” medical carers sometimes face from hesitant passengers.

He believes the concern around onboard doctor’s abilities came following a Consumer Affairs report in 2002 that “found medical facilities on ships lacking.”

The survey, conducted by the American Medical Association found that 27 per cent of ship’s doctors did not have “advanced training” in treating heart attacks.

However, Bruns points out that while heart attacks are the “most common” medical emergency onboard a ship, treating them has more to do with time than specific training.

He explained: “Cruise ship doctors rarely see passengers for anything beyond dehydration or tummy ache.”

However, he goes on to explains that the biggest medical hitters tend to be health concerns the passenger had prior to their cruise holiday.

Even in a worst-case-scenario, Brun points out the skill level of onboard doctors.

He points out that the damming 2002 report does not “define ‘advanced training’ so even a gastroenterologist serving a stint at sea could easily be unqualified.

“These ‘severely lacking’ individuals, as the article literally labels them, have a success rate that puts U.S. doctors to shame.

“Indeed losing merely .000004 per cent of such patients.”

Brun likens the abilities of the onboard doctor to be equivalent to that of a “small town”.

Therefore, doctors on board a ship are perfectly safe and able to treat a passenger who finds themselves under the weather.

“If a medical emergency occurs that is beyond the abilities of the shop, you will be helicoptered off to the nearest hospital,” he concludes.

Later on in his memoir, Brun discusses a different type of unexpected emergency that cruise workers are briefed on.

He gives a behind-the-scenes look into what crew are trained to do if a passenger falls overboard.

Although you may not realise it, passengers go missing from cruises fairly frequently and this sometimes means they have fallen overboard.

In fact, in August of this year, a passenger mysteriously vanished and was sadly presumed dead after falling overboard on a cruise to Malaysia.

Unfortunately, no one was aware of what happened, though crew do have a protocol should someone does fall over the ship’s railings.

Brun explains: “The ship will stop and a boat will pick you up.”

Though, less optimistically, he adds: “Such was the truth of only half of it. If the fall of over a hundred feet did not kill the passenger, he would utterly disappear in the giant swells.”

Luckily, research from Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) found that accidentally falling overboard is relatively unlikely.

Furthermore, deaths onboard cruise liners are extremely low; just one in 6.25 million.


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