Postcards & Passports

What if You Have a Medical Emergency on a Cruise?

This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019

What happens if you have a medical emergency on a cruise? 

A cruise has long been on your list of things to do, and it’s finally time to make your reservations. You’ve chosen your itinerary and your embarkation port — probably chosen your favorite cruise line as well. But perhaps there’s a little concern about your first-time cruise. After all, there are things to consider.

You’re leaving the country, and you’ll need a passport. You may not know the language of port cities you’ll be visiting. And heaven forbid, there could be a medical emergency while you’re away. How can you be confident that you’ll be okay? How can you be prepared for the worst while allowing yourself to enjoy this lifetime dream?

What’s available on a cruise ship?

Most cruise lines have onboard medical centers with board-qualified doctors and nurses to take care of medical needs. They can certainly set broken bones, stitch cuts, and administer medications.

Medical equipment onboard a cruise ship will generally include lifesaving equipment, such as defibrillators and external pacemakers. Some ships also include x-ray machines, lab equipment, and electrocardiograph machines.

What training do onboard doctors have?

Most cruise doctors are trained to provide cardiac life support and have experience in general emergency or critical care. They will most likely have at least minor surgical skills. If more extensive medical care is needed, ship doctors are qualified to authorize the transfer to a hospital or facility on shore.

What happens in the case of a medical emergency?

First a doctor determines the nature of the emergency and the care required. If he/she makes the decision that the nature of the emergency is severe enough, evacuation will be ordered. The captain will be notified immediately and will confer with the doctor to coordinate changing the course or speed of the ship — or communicating directly with a rescue agency, such as the Coast Guard.

The condition of the patient and where the ship is located will both be considered. A ship may be diverted so a patient can be transferred to a shore medical facility. That transfer can take the form of a speed boat or helicopter, although not all cruise ships have helipads.

What is the worst-case scenario?

It is possible that the nature of the illness/injury may require more comprehensive facilities than are available nearby. In such a case, the patient (or those attending him) may recommend medical repatriation. A patient may prefer to be treated near home, rather than in a foreign country. It may also be preferable to be near other family members who can lend support or where convalescence can take place.

What can you do to be prepared?

Check with the cruise line and specific cruise ship you plan to travel with, to find out what their medical facilities include. If there is a specific medical condition you are concerned about, you should discuss it with the cruise line. You may wish to arrange to have specialized medical equipment brought onboard. It is highly suggested that you purchase travel insurance, which can help with emergency medical services as well as reimburse you for costs should you have to cancel the rest of your trip. You should always bring a list of medications and doses you are taking.


Hundreds of thousands of passengers cruise every year without any problems at all. I hope you will rest assured that you can be well cared for if a medical emergency arises. Go ahead and book your reservations and enjoy that bucket list cruise!

medical emergency

9 thoughts on “What if You Have a Medical Emergency on a Cruise?

  1. Linda

    We cruise a lot. And probably take it for granted that the medical services will meet our needs. Thanks for this comprehensive view. My concern is always less about the care on the ship. Than being transferred to the closest port – which may have quite sub-standard medical services. We always buy medical insurance so we can be moved if required. Luckily, we have only had to visit the ship doctor for minor issues. But it was REALLY expensive! Good thing we had insurance.

  2. Kavita Favelle

    We had a passenger with serious medical issues on a cruise to the Antarctic. Unfortunately, the doctor was quite experienced (this was his first trip on the cruise ship) and although he suggested that the passenger leave the cruise when we were at the Falklands, where better medical treatment was available not to mention flights to specialist hospitals, the passenger said she didn’t want to miss the rest of the trip and he acquiesced. What that resulted in was all the passengers missing the second half of the trip when she took a turn for the worse and we had to divert to a base where a flight could come in to evacuate her, which took some days. That extra waiting time meant that she was not able to get the more specialist help she needed in time, and she deteriorated. My takeaway from this, apart from sorrow for both passenger and doctor, was to realise that while onboard health facilities are actually very good these days, that it’s better to play safe than sorry when something unexpected happens that the onboard doctor feels is best treated on shore.

  3. Medha Verma

    That is a pretty interesting post to read. I’ve been on a cruise ship only once and somehow never really thought about what would happen should there be a medical emergency. Glad to know that they have majority of equipment on board, at least to take care of fractures and all. Also, if something more serious happens, they would call the coast guard or speed up to the nearest port!

  4. Christina

    It’s essential to have travel insurance when you travel, especially if you’re going on a cruise. I’d hate to think what would happen if you were in, say, Antarctica and had to be airlifted out! The cost would be astronomical.

  5. Vicky and Buddy

    This is something I’m sure most people don’t think of, so I’m glad you brought it up. I feel pretty confident that doctors on board would be able to handle most situations. Worst case scenario would be having to leave the ship. It’s a good idea to have travel insurance for those situations.

  6. Kate Flores

    I will share it with my family and friends too! Normally, we don’t really think of negative things when traveling but as you said heaven forbid but we must be ready especially on a cruise where you can get help nowhere in the middle of the sea. Thanks Tami!

  7. Julie Joyce

    My husband and I were on a cruise with my Mum and Dad when my husband took ill. He was admitted to the hospital but soon loss feeling in his legs then bladder. We were left on broad for a couple more days and then taken off ship in the middle of the night pitch black along a narrow gang plank and put onto a small fishing boat with no life jackets. My husband was strapped into a sort of sling and was crying out in pain. A doctor from the ship accompanied us to the port side in the Suez Canal.. it was freezing cold and my husband was shivering the doctor removed his jacket to put over him the doctor stood all the way holding onto my husband to make sure he didn’t fall off the bench. The journey was over an hour long.. when we arrived several men struggled to lift my husband up onto the port side.. the ship doctor was not allowed off the boat and was sent back to ship.. we were then bungled in some kind of Ambulance with no equipment and taken to a hospital.. we went in to what I think was A & E where there was dirty and rusty equipment.. need I say more.. this is the worst experience of my life

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