Medical care at sea – beyond sunburn and seasickness

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There are times, fortunately few, when a special call goes out to guests aboard Royal Caribbean ships asking for their blood.

It means someone is having a medical emergency, needs a transfusion and registered blood donors are invited to help.

“We don’t store it,” explains Steve Williams, director of fleet medical services. “We use fresh blood, which in fact for most medical conditions is better than using hospital banked blood because it’s got all the clotting factors and the things that you need to treat the patient.”

“It’s a very successful program and so far we’ve administered blood to 61 patients since we started it in 2009.”

Williams offers the information as an example of how the medical facilities on Royal Caribbean ships are equipped to handle much more than seasickness and sunburn.

“In fact, the medical care on cruise ships today has really become quite sophisticated,” he says. “We can treat heart attacks with the latest clot-busting drugs. We can treat respiratory failure with intubation and ventilation. We can treat severe hemorrhage or bleeding with blood transfusions.”

They vary in size and layout, but all the medical facilities on Royal Caribbean ships meet or exceed the American College of Emergency Physicians’ Health Care Guidelines for Cruise Ship Medical Facilities.

So, for example, every ship has an intensive care unit. They carry advanced cardiac life support drugs and equipment – including defibrillators and electrocardiogram machines – as well as digital X-ray equipment. New ventilators have been installed to handle a range of respiratory treatments, and complete formularies are stocked in the shipboard pharmacies.

Telemedicine enables doctors on board to consult with specialists on shore, as needed, over the Internet. For dermatological issues – a relatively common problem for crewmembers whose hands are exposed to a variety of irritants – color photos of the affected skin are transmitted to the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital for diagnosis and recommendations.

And now telepsychiatry services are available fleet wide enabling each ship’s medical staff to consult with a psychiatrist at Baptist Hospital of Miami when necessary.

“Unfortunately, we do have people from time to time who threaten to kill themselves by jumping off the ship,” Williams explains. “So having a psychiatrist available to consult is really quite important.”

Those who think of shipboard medical facilities as little more than clinics that dispense Dramamine may be particularly surprised to know that even kidney dialysis patients can be safely accommodated on some Royal Caribbean cruises.

In partnership with Dialysis at Sea, which provides hemodialysis equipment and specialists on select cruises, “we now do more dialysis cruises than all the other cruise lines put together,” Williams says.

“What’s nice about it is they can go on their tours during the day, then have their dialysis in the evening.”

And, as of last year, Royal Caribbean is the first cruise line to employ an electronic medical records system and has already completed more than 600,000 patient consults using it, Williams adds.