Don't Ignore This Sneaky Danger Of Living On A Cruise Ship

Living on a cruise ship can be more than a fantasy for those willing to swap their mortgage for the cost of a stateroom. Life at sea typically offers daily buffets, onboard entertainment, trips to ports around the world, and stunning ocean views at any hour of the day.

However, living full-time on a cruise can come with some downsides, especially for those with special medical needs. As regular cruisers know, ships often have a medical facility available for passengers who fall ill or experience symptoms that require treatment. The facility is typically staffed with at least one doctor and a couple of nurses, and larger ships may have additional personnel to tend to the thousands of passengers and crew members on board. This medical team is generally sufficient when it comes to standard bouts of upset stomach, minor cuts and bruises, and other mild ailments.

Unfortunately, this may not be enough to deal with severe or less common illnesses that require specialized care. Moreover, cruise ship doctors rarely accept medical insurance — travel insurance is the only way to avoid paying an exorbitant amount out of pocket. For passengers with ongoing health issues or those who develop a serious health condition during their journey, living on a cruise could be a risky endeavor.

Cruise doctors are well-trained, but not all treatments are readily available

To be clear, the doctors and nurses on cruise ships are fully trained medical professionals. Cruises sailing from the U.S. require staff to be certified in internal medicine, family medicine, or emergency medicine, and doctors should have spent time practicing within their field before working in the ship's clinic. The medical personnel should also be trained in providing emergency care, such as simple surgical interventions (like you might need if you suffer an extensive cut). The doctors are also available to prescribe necessary medications, though note that they may not have the variety of options found in a standard pharmacy.

Most onboard clinics resemble an urgent care facility, rather than a full-scale hospital. Large ships may house individual consultation rooms, a waiting area, a separate area for patients requiring intensive care, lab equipment, X-ray machines, and other features commonly found in on-land facilities. Smaller ships may have more minimalist clinics that offer little privacy. Regardless of size, certain medical equipment is unlikely to be found on any cruise. As Dr. Joe Scott, senior director of fleet medical operations at Carnival Corporation, shared with USA Today, "No one has really yet figured out how to put a CT scan on a ship that is moving through the ocean and have it work well."

What if you suffer a medical emergency on a cruise?

Most cruise ship clinics hold designated consultation hours each day, similar to a traditional doctor's office. But if you fall ill outside of those times, you can still be seen by an on-call doctor or nurse. In case of an emergency, ship doctors' main priority is to stabilize the patient. "There really isn't (anything) we can't treat, at least for the first few hours," Dr. Joe Scott told USA Today. Emergency remedies are administered until the passenger can be taken to another facility. Depending on the circumstances, this could mean waiting until the next port of call, where the passenger can be taken to a hospital.

During serious health crises, a medical evacuation may be in order. These crises can include heart failure, strokes, broken bones, critical mental health episodes, and some infectious diseases. If necessary, a helicopter will airlift the sick passenger to a nearby hospital.

Just like treatment provided on board, being removed from a cruise for medical treatment can be expensive and might not be covered by insurance. The good news is that evacuations are rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 95% of issues are treated in cruise facilities, and some of the remaining 5% don't require emergency care. Still, travelers hoping to live on a cruise ship might want to consider their personal health needs before booking their room.