Staying Healthy on the High Seas: How Cruise Ships Provide Medical Care

In 2021, the number of ocean cruise passengers worldwide was around 4.8 million. Some cruises last a few days, but others can go on for weeks or months as these ships travel across oceans.

Looking at these statistics, it’s not hard to imagine a few passengers getting sick or injured onboard these vessels. Common health conditions at sea include seasickness, food poisoning, flu, and regional infections.

The environment inside some ships, including the materials used to construct these vessels, can also cause a health hazard.

For example, some older ships contain asbestos, heat-resistant insulation and fireproofing material that can cause diseases like mesothelioma, a rare cancer type.

Fortunately, modern cruise ships, in compliance with numerous safety standards, don’t contain asbestos anymore. 

Still, since doctors often diagnose mesothelioma in a later stage, it’s better to see your healthcare provider regularly.  

Are you interested in how cruise ships handle their passengers’ medical needs and emergencies at sea?

You’re maybe wondering about the technologies cruise ships have that can help with medical emergencies and disease treatments aboard the ship.

This article explains how cruise ships give medical care to passengers while at sea. It also discusses the different medical technologies cruise ships can utilize to provide medical care during emergencies or disease treatments.

How Cruise Ships Give Medical Care at Sea

Cruise ships usually originate from different countries. So there are no common standards for the ship’s minimum credentials for doctors, healthcare staff, or medical equipment.

Factors like passenger capacity, ship size, itinerary, staff, and facilities can also affect the ship’s medical care needs.

Despite these challenges, medical personnel aboard these ships must provide reasonable emergency medical care. Such care includes stabilizing the injured or ill traveler until the ship arrives at the port so that the traveler can receive definitive treatment in a land-based healthcare facility.

At a minimum, most cruise ship infirmaries should have the following:

  • One or more doctors and nurses
  • Medications
  • Bandages
  • Sutures
  • Oxygen
  • Wheelchairs and stretchers
  • Immobilization equipment for neck and back injuries
  • Cardiac defibrillators
  • External pacemakers
  • ECG and X-ray machines

As cruise lines continue to grow and medical technology improves, some ships have become equipped with telemedicine capabilities. Doctors aboard the ship can use a digital system to connect with specialists on shore, sharing video links and data.

Another concern is the possibility of disease outbreaks due to a tainted food supply or an infected individual. These outbreaks can affect many people, especially those gathered in a confined area, such as a cruise ship.

Cruise ships must comply with the Vessel Sanitation Program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States to prevent or reduce the possibility of outbreaks.

This program requires ships carrying more than 13 passengers, visiting a U.S. territory or port, and sailing an international itinerary to be inspected for compliance for:

  • Medical facilities
  • Employee hygiene
  • Food preparation
  • Water supply
  • General cleanliness of the ship
  • Pool and spa filtration
  • Ventilation systems

The program scores each ship starting from 100 points and gradually deducts points based on violations. Ships with a score of 86 and higher pass the inspection.

If you want to travel on a cruise ship with a good sanitation record, consider reviewing these ships’ scores on the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program website before booking your travel.

Staying Healthy on the High Seas
Many modern cruise ships have state-of-the-art medical facilities that meet or exceed healthcare standards at sea.

Medical Technologies to Handle Emergencies and Disease Treatments at Sea

Many modern cruise ships have state-of-the-art medical facilities that meet or exceed healthcare standards at sea.

For example, some new cruise ships carry ECG (electrocardiogram) machines, defibrillators, digital X-ray equipment, and ventilators for respiratory conditions. Other ships even have pharmacies with a complete stock of drug products, especially for ailments common at sea.

One technological advancement that has provided a significant advantage for cruise ships is telemedicine.

Telemedicine uses telecommunication technology and electronic information to get the appropriate healthcare while you’re aboard a cruise ship. Telemedicine’s essential requirement is to have a phone or stable internet to continue your medical care.

The benefits of telemedicine include the following:

  • Consultation with your healthcare provider through the phone or live video call
  • Communication with your doctor by sending and receiving messages through email or a chat messaging platform
  • Remote monitoring of patients
  • Savings on travel time and transportation costs
  • Decreased waiting time for emergency or medical services
  • Reduced frequency of visits to the clinic
people on a video call
Some ships utilize telemedicine to help provide a higher level of care to guests while in remote locations at sea.

Telemedicine can also create an opportunity for cruise ships to provide the following healthcare services at sea:

  • Prescription for medication
  • General healthcare, including blood pressure checkups, wellness visits, and consultations for non-emergency illnesses
  • COVID-19 screening, testing recommendations, and guidance on quarantine or isolation
  • Nutrition counseling
  • Mental health counseling

To learn more about what to look for in a cruise ship’s medical care service, check the healthcare guidelines for medical facilities on cruise ships by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).


  1. Number of ocean cruise passengers worldwide from 2009 to 2021

  1. Health on the High Seas: Medical Care on Cruise Ships

  1. What is Telemedicine in a non-US Setting

  1. Health Care Guidelines for Cruise Ship Medical Facilities

John Shallo
John Shallo
John Shallo is the founder and editor of Cruise Addicts. Since 1999 it has been a leading destination for cruise travelers and self professed Cruise Addicts looking for the latest news, ship reviews and travel tips.

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