Is Medical Care on Board Cruise Ships Sufficient For Today’s Passengers?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

The quality of medical care on board today’s cruise ships often falls short of what is needed in the event of a medical emergency. In my book, Unsafe On The High Seas, I compare cruise ship medical care to that of a walk-in clinic:

“If you’ve got a scrape, a cut, a sun burn, a cold, you can be helped. A doctor or nurse will take your blood pressure and dispense antibiotics, aspirin, and ice. But anything more complex—the emergencies that are apt to happen on ships with 2,500 or more passengers, many of them seniors—and care becomes problematic and sometimes scary.”

It’s a problem that is affecting hundreds of thousands of lives each year. Estimates are that upwards of 200,000 people will have a health problem on a cruise in any given year. With numbers like that, it does stand to reason that the cruise line companies would do what’s right by their passengers—and save money awarded in civil judgments—by simply spending more money on credible medical care. The record for “worlds largest cruise ship” has been broken at least three times since I penned that book several years ago. With more and more people on board each cruise ship, it is hard to fathom that the cruise industry persists in the notion that an infirmary and one or two ill-equipped doctor with few diagnostic tools is sufficient to care for all of the needs that might arise out of such a large population.

If you have a city of 5,000 people on land, it is likely, at least in the first world countries, that there is a hospital or medical center in town. It is a virtual certainty that if there isn’t, an ambulance can transport you to a medical provider in the next town over, if need be. On land, there are very few places where you couldn’t have access to advanced diagnostics and cutting edge medical technology within a few hours. That advanced medical equipment saves lives.

More disturbing still is the cruise lines “dumping” of passengers at the nearest port. I remember one case in which an individual became sick at sea with a heart condition. Not only was the man not airlifted back to the United States for medical care, he was treated in a substandard hospital on a remote island, after the ship finally reached port there. The treatment he received resulted in permanent medical damage. That damage was probably preventable. However, the cruise lines have little incentive to airlift patients, or to take an active role in ensuring adequate medical care. This is true even though the cruise lines has a duty of reasonable care to get sick or injured passengers to a medical provider for treatment. To do so, they must even divert the vessel to the nearest port where medical care can be obtained. To avoid diverting the vessel, the ships carry their own doctors so a diversion is most instances is not needed. Unfortunately the law allows the cruise lines to treat the doctors as independent contractors for which the cruise lines have limited liability. As such the cruise lines are not motivated to hire the best medical care providers. It is almost as if a cost-benefit analysis has established that it is cheaper to be liable in so many cases, since many victims fail to seek legal representation before the statute of limitations expires, a mistake that has them effectively waiving their rights under the law.

However, case law does establish that cruise ship operators must provide for the safety of passengers and crew, and render assistance that ordinarily prudent persons would render in similar circumstances. Sadly, and to the detriment of passengers, (some of whom have later become our clients in such cases), that doesn’t always happen.

It is important to insist on appropriate medical care if you experience a medical emergency on board a cruise ship, or any other ship. If you or someone you love has been denied proper care, or the ship’s owner has taken actions that created or aggravated your medical condition, or delayed treatment that would have improved your prognosis, you may be entitled to financial compensation that can improve your quality of life and provide for medical treatment of your condition. I would urge you to contact one of our maritime lawyers to discuss the incident and learn how our firm can fight for your rights, and help you live a better life.