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Dealing with a medical emergency probably isn’t the first thing you think about when planning a cruise vacation. You’re focused on the destination. The sights and experiences you’ll get to enjoy. The amenities offered on the cruise ship itself.

Unfortunately, medical emergencies are not landlocked. While not exactly common, they can happen anywhere and to anyone, and cruises are no exception. In fact, just a few weeks ago Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas became the first cruise ship to call in Key West since the beginning of the COVID pandemic due to a medical emergency — an 81-year-old man needed urgent medical care to help with septic shock.

The ship’s crew was able to get the passenger to a hospital in Key West, which raises a question: are cruise ships able to deal with serious and urgent medical problems? The answer is… not really. While 24-hour care is standard — and required — for cruise lines, the facilities are generally only designed to handle conditions that are fairly minor.

What Exactly Can You Expect from a Cruise Ship Medical Facility?

If you or a loved one does get sick on your cruise, what can you expect? Who will treat you? What will the equipment and facilities be like?


Both the Cruise Line International Association and the American College of Emergency Physicians set standards of care for cruise lines. ACEP says that facilities must contain:

  • A stretcher
  • A backboard (for spine immobilization)
  • Cardiac monitors
  • Defibrillators (2)
  • EKG capabilities
  • Labs to do testing
  • Oxygen
  • Wheelchairs
  • Additional equipment with which to measure vital signs

Additionally, basic medicines will be available on board, and medical staff can treat patients with antibiotics, aspirin, pills for seasickness (frequently complimentary), vaccines, and drugs for various common issues related to:

  • Eyes, ears, nose, and throat problems
  • Urinary tract conditions
  • Cardiovascular and gastrointestinal illnesses
  • Breathing/respiratory concerns
  • Infectious diseases

As mentioned above, you can expect 24-hour care. However, that does not mean that the medical center will necessarily be open 24-7. Generally, they keep regular hours and have someone on call for emergencies the rest of the time.

What Exactly Can You Expect from a Cruise Ship Medical Facility?

Typically, medical centers have multiple beds and are designed to deal with minor, nonemergency conditions and stabilize anyone suffering a life-threatening issue. Common conditions handled in cruise ship medical centers include:

  • Respiratory illnesses (influenza)
  • Gastrointestinal illnesses (norovirus)
  • Motion sickness
  • Injuries

Medical Staff

All major cruise lines sail with, at minimum, two nurses and one doctor. Larger ships often have 3-4 nurses and two doctors.

All medical staff is required to have 3+ years of postgraduate experience in emergency and general medicine or be board certified in family, internal, or emergency medicine. Personnel have to attend a medical school that is recognized and completes the designated number of training years.

Physician credentials may come from:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • The EU
  • Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • South Africa
  • The UK
  • The US
  • Any country approved by the medical director

In terms of medical skills, the staff has to be able to perform:

  • Minor surgical procedures
  • Reasonable therapeutic and diagnostic interventions
  • Advanced life support practices
  • Emergency cardiovascular care
  • Stabilization and evacuation for seriously ill or injured patients

Additionally, both nurses and doctors must be fluent in the language that is predominantly spoken on the ship.

What If You Receive Negligent Care from a Ship’s Medical Facilities?

As you might imagine from the above description, the medical staff and facilities you have available to you at sea are not likely to be up to the typical standards you are accustomed to on land.

Because of this, you might wonder what happens if you receive care that actually does you more harm than good. What if the nurses or doctor end up hurting you while trying to provide care? What if they make a mistake and treat you incorrectly? Who can you hold accountable? And how?

Thankfully, a recent federal appeals panel ruling found that cruise lines can be held liable for the negligent acts of their medical staff. There are some caveats, of course. In order for the cruise line to have responsibilities, a victim must show:

  • The cruise line has the power to hire and fire their medical staff
  • Medical personnel must be employed as ship officers or wear the ship’s uniform
  • Cruise line must pay the medical staff directly
  • All medical equipment should be stocked by the cruise line
  • Passenger bills come from the cruise line
  • Cruise line advertised medical staff to passengers

Additionally, as in all medical malpractice negligence cases, you must prove that four elements exist:

Duty of Care. The doctor owed you a duty of care as their patient.

Breach of Duty. The doctor breached their duty to you by engaging in inappropriate behavior.

Actual Injury. You suffered an injury due to the medical treatment you received.

Causation Between Breach and Injury. The breach of duty is what caused the injury you received.

Florida Maritime Lawyer

Of course, cases like these are rarely simple or easy, which is why it is so important to work with a knowledgeable cruise ship injury attorney who understands not only personal injury law, but the nuances that set it apart from medical negligence on a cruise ship.



About the Author:

Andrew Winston is a partner at the personal injury law firm of Winston Law. For over 20 years, he has successfully represented countless people in all kinds of personal injury cases, with a particular focus on child injury, legal malpractice, and premises liability. He has been recognized for excellence in the representation of injured clients by admission to the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, and named one of America’s Top 100 High-Stakes Litigators. Mr. Winston is AV Preeminent Rated by the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, enjoys a 10.0 rating by AVVO as a Top Personal Injury Attorney, has been selected as a Florida “SuperLawyer” from 2011-2020 – an honor reserved for the top 5% of lawyers in the state – was voted to Florida Trend’s ”Legal Elite,” recognized by Expertise as one of the 20 Best Fort Lauderdale personal injury attorneys, named one of the Top 100 Lawyers in the Miami area for 2015-2017, and one of the Top 100 Lawyers in Florida for 2015-2017 and 2019.