There aren’t many occupations that allow you to travel the world, exploring stunningly beautiful countries and experiencing a range of fascinating cultures. While such work might seem like a dream for many, for doctors, such a role is far from a fantasy.
Life as a cruise ship doctor is truly unique, and no two days are ever the same. Working in a well-equipped shipboard medical centre, a cruise ship doctor can practice in an environment that is unlike any other, treating patients from different walks of life. Cruise ship jobs also offer the added advantage of being able to spend your time away from work, discovering regions of the world others could only hope to imagine.
Dr Lee Blackburn, a highly valued member of the Medacs Healthcare family, is a man who has lived the dream of sailing the seas whilst carrying out the job he loves. Following the completion of his first tour of duty on board a cruise ship carrying around 1,900 passengers and 800 crew members, we caught up with Dr Blackburn to discuss what life is really like for a doctor at sea.
Q. What made you decide to work as a cruise ship doctor?
“Working on a cruise ship had never crossed my mind until I received a general email sent out by Medacs Healthcare. I was not available at the time but enquired anyway as it seemed like an interesting opportunity.
“Initially, I had no intention of signing up to a long-term contract but was interested rather in a brief locum period at sea. However, after discussions and looking into the terms and conditions, I came around to the idea of a longer contract.”
Q. What is a typical day like for a doctor on board a cruise ship?
“Over the course of a three-month tour there is no typical day on board a cruise ship, however, there are certain routines. The medical centre is generally staffed by two doctors and four nurses. There are two clinics to attend every day plus each doctor covers, on average, 12 hours per day on-call. Clinics usually run from 8.30-10.00 and 16.00-17.30 each day. These clinics can be busy and usually involve GP type presentations.
“During your time on-call, you may be required to deal with any type of emergency involving crew or passengers. Sometimes on-call is busy and at other times you may go a couple of days without being disturbed. Serious cases involve the mobilisation of the whole team via an emergency broadcast made by the bridge.
“The medical centre is an impressive area of the ship and has in-patient beds, a resuscitation room, treatment and x-ray room and consulting rooms. We are trained by the company to take our own radiographs and we often utilise this skill in patient care.
“An average cruise will be two weeks in duration unless the ship is on an around the world cruise. During this period, it is not unusual to send several passengers and crew off to foreign ports for specialist tests. It’s also not unusual to disembark patients for care at a local hospital or immediate repatriation for urgent care.”
Q. As a cruise ship doctor, what is the most interesting/bizarre case you have had to deal with on board?
“I have seen many patients with a wide variety of medical needs. Coming from A&E, I have had to adapt to a general practice style for daily clinics, but there have been interesting emergency cases to deal with, such as myocardial infarctions, cardiac arrhythmias, severe cases of pneumonia, TIAs and strokes.
“The ship can also be a dangerous place for crew, especially if they work in the engine room and machinery spaces. Lacerations, eye injuries and chemical contamination of the eyes are not uncommon complaints.
“Some injuries, which might ordinarily be referred to a specialist in the UK - such as complex hand wounds or significant facial lacerations - have to be dealt with on board if the ship is at sea for an extended period. Dealing with these can be very satisfying, however, as you get to see the benefits of your interventions.
“During my time at sea, I had two cases of work-related laceration of the hand within 24 hours of each other. One with a complete tendon rupture was eventually disembarked to a hand surgeon in Norway and then repatriated to India. The other was managed on board (which I would never be expected to do in a UK emergency department) and the crew member made a very rapid and full recovery and was able to continue his contract at sea following only a short period of convalescence.”
Q. What do you get up to when you are not on-call?
“When not in clinic or seeing patients whilst on-call, your time is entirely your own and the medical team has full privileges on board. Basically you can eat meals in any of the many restaurants, use all passenger facilities such as the gym and spa plus attend theatre shows or other events. Evening activities are excellent and there are always shows and bands to watch, plus no shortage of social events for crew and officers to enjoy.”
Q. Do you get off the ship much?
“At all times one doctor and one nurse must remain on board to cover on-call, which essentially means that each doctor usually manages to get off the ship at 50 per cent of ports during a cruise.
“During my time at sea, I have travelled to the Norwegian Fjords, the Canary Islands, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Estonia and Germany to name a few. And I absolutely loved the experience.”
Q. Do you have any recommendations for locums that are interested in becoming a cruise ship doctor?
“I would certainly recommend the position of ship's doctor, and the work exceeded my hopes and expectations in terms of medical experience, quality of life and travel aspirations.
“Doctors with competence in dealing with GP type presentations, skills in dealing with medical emergencies and trained in ALS/ACLS should contact Medacs Healthcare directly for further information if the life of cruise ship doctor appeals to them.
“It's also worth noting that as high-ranking officers on the ship, doctors are held in very high regard by both crew and passengers, which can seem a little strange to begin with. It is very humbling to witness the genuine respect that crew have for the medical team and especially the appreciation they show when you care for their medical needs, which makes the job very satisfying.”
Find out more
If you are eager to learn more about working as a cruise ship doctor, or if you would like to discover what our range of cruise ship jobs for nurses and paramedics, please contact our dedicated recruitment team via email.
Alternatively, you can find out more about living and working aboard a cruise ship by downloading our free guide.
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