Maritime Medical Services

The sea is so vast, so great, and so dangerous. Have you ever wondered, what happens when a shipworker gets sick in the middle of the sea? There aren’t any hospitals around to go to, so what do they do?

This is where a doctor specialized in maritime medicine steps in. Usually based on the mainland, sea doctors provide remote care and are trained to answer to a wide variety of sea-related injuries, conditions, and sicknesses.

In addition to providing remote medical consultations and instructions, sea medicine specialists deal with regulatory work, safety audits, and consultatory work to ensure that seafarers can safely journey into the sea for months at a time.

In this article, we’ve put together the top responsibilities and medical conditions that a maritime medical specialist routinely has to deal with.

How Are Acute Medical Conditions Treated In The Sea?

Larger sea vessels, sea factories, and cruise ships might sometimes have a specialist sea doctor on board. Some vessels have a designated medical officer or specialized nurse trained in dealing with minor injuries and common medical conditions. These staff members can also effectively work under the guidance of a remote doctor based on the mainland.

If a minor injury occurs, medical officers can usually deal with it themselves. If it’s a more complicated medical condition, then the mainland sea doctor will remotely provide instructions to the medical staff.

Instructions might include evacuation, administering medicine, or performing minor suturing or procedures.

What Do Sea Doctors Do?

From telemedicine to safety audits and vaccination protocols, sea doctors deal with everything that has to do with the medical safety of ship crews and travelers on deck.

Treating Common Medical Conditions

A doctor specializing in maritime medicine is trained to specifically deal with common medical conditions that happen in the sea. Such conditions include:

  • Infectious diseases: respiratory tract infections (bronchitis, pneumonia, sinusitis), urinary tract infections, and others
  • Skin conditions: sunburns and chemical injuries
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Gastrointestinal problems: nausea, food poisoning, diarrhea, and constipation are commonly encountered complaints among seafarers
  • Seasickness and motion sickness
  • Dehydration: A common problem among ship crew members who might work long shifts in the sun without drinking water
  • Psychiatric problems: Spending months in an extreme environment can sometimes negatively affect the mental health of some crew members. Maritime doctors are trained to diagnose these illnesses and identify the patients at risk.
  • Allergic reactions
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Cardiac problems

Sea vessels are usually equipped with medical supplies and equipment to handle a wide array of sea-related medical conditions. Under the guidance of the mainland sea doctor, a medical officer can administer intravenous hydration, antibiotics, antiemetics, anti-allergy medications, and other drugs as needed.

Traumatic Sea-related Injuries

Sailing, fishing, and shipping can be physically hazardous. Large mechanical equipment and high violent waves can many times lead to traumatic injuries among the ship crew.

If a maritime doctor is not present on board, a medical officer or nurse can usually deal with minor cut wounds, crush injuries, and traumatic injuries related to work in the sea.

In more complex situations, the mainland sea doctor will provide instructions regarding medical care. If the crewmember cannot be treated on board, the sea doctor will recommend evacuation and arrange for care with the mainland authorities.

One common traumatic sea injury is called Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS). This is a musculoskeletal condition that arises from the prolonged use of vibrating tools, such as a jackhammer or chipping machine. It can lead to permanent arm disability if not treated in time.

Diving Injuries and Diving-related Conditions

Diving medicine, also called underwater medicine or hyperbaric medicine, is one of the main fields that maritime doctors have to deal with.

The list of diving-related medical conditions treated by sea medical specialists include:

  • Decompression sickness: This is a common condition that happens in deep-sea divers who ascend too fast from a dive. Nitrogen bubbles form in and around the blood vessels, leading to a wide array of symptoms, such as weakness, dizziness, pain, seizures, and altered mental state.
  • Arterial gas embolism: This is when gas bubbles form inside blood vessels, blocking blood from reaching the brain. They can lead to rapid deterioration and even death if not treated in time.
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning: Sometimes, a malfunction in the breathing equipment can lead to CO poisoning in divers. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache, and altered mental status.
  • Barotrauma: The sheer pressure of the water in deep-sea dives can sometimes lead to pressure damage to organs such as the eardrums and sinuses.

Such injuries are usually treated in hyperbaric oxygen chambers on the mainland.

Chemical Hazards and Chemical Injuries in The Sea

Workers on rigs and sea factories often have to deal with dangerous chemicals while on duty. Such hazardous substances can sometimes lead to chemical burn injuries or inhalation injuries, requiring urgent medical care and occasionally evacuation and hospitalization.

Sea doctors will determine the severity of injury remotely, and arrange for evacuation if needed.

Vaccinations and Disease Prevention In Seafarers

Since ship crews often live in a confined space for a long time and sometimes visit high-risk areas, prevention against infectious diseases is necessary.

A maritime doctor will arrange for vaccination and preventive protocols that cover common infections such as:

  • Influenza
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Meningococcus (meningitis-causing bacteria)
  • Malaria (if visiting malaria-infested regions)

Determining Fitness for Sea Travel

Prolonged sea travel requires a minimum level of physical and mental fitness. This is determined by a maritime specialist before the crew sails.

Routine physical, mental, and laboratory examination is done to ensure that seafarers can tolerate going into the sea with no great medical risks.

Ship Medical Safety Audits

A sea doctor is the one responsible for performing safety audits before the sea sets sail. They will make sure that the ship is well equipped with essential diagnostic tools, medications, and medical equipment.

They make sure that there are clear and updated medical protocols in place to deal with any medical situation on board.

Maritime doctors also make sure that the ship is medically safe for long sea travel, and will make safety recommendations according to their audits.

Training and Educating Ship Crews

One of the main responsibilities of a sea medical specialist is to train crew members, specifically medical officers and onboard nurses, in dealing with medical conditions that happen in the sea.

A maritime specialist doctor will make sure that the designated crew members can apply medical instructions effectively and treat minor medical conditions under remote guidance.

Maritime medicine deals with seemingly heterogeneous conditions from a variety of medical specialties to ensure safe sea travel. With responsibilities encasing telemedicine, education, auditing, and prevention, maritime specialist doctors are integral to all our travels in the sea.

At Mya Care, you can connect for a Maritime Medical Services Consultation with the best hospital in Spain.

About the Author:
Dr. Mersad is a medical doctor, author, and editor based in Germany. He's managed to publish several research papers early in his career. He is passionate about spreading medical knowledge. Thus, he spends a big portion of his time writing educational articles for everyone to learn.


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