Dealing with Medical Emergencies aboard Merchant Ships

Getting injured or becoming chronically ill aboard a ship risks the life of the person it happens to. Facing either of these circumstances involves not only the suffering attached to the mishap, but also the burden of unreliable diagnosis and ineffective medical monitoring. A patient on a ship is fully dependent on the skills of the medical officer and the meager first aid tools available.

Earlier, in situations involving serious injuries or sickness, there was nothing more that could be done other than giving sedatives or treating the person with whatever resources were there on hand. However, times have changed now, and so have been the procedures for providing emergency medical aid on ship.

History of Emergency Medical Care for Merchant Marine

In the last few decades, many steps have been taken to reduce the risk to life onboard a ship. Qualified medical officers have been deployed to reduce the level of risk as much as possible. It is to note that none of these officers are doctors, but only certified first aid and emergency medical care providers. Thus, in case of extreme emergency, all that a medical officer will provide is basic emergency care and some type of medication or sedative to ease the patient’s pain until the ship reaches the next port.

Starting in the 1920s, ship’s radios were used to communicate with a physician located onshore to obtain the right kind of medical aid. However, because of the variability of radio propagation, this system often couldn’t be used beyond a certain range. If the ship was within 200 nautical miles, high speed "life boats” and helicopters were a viable option for saving the distressed sailor. However, in bad weather and beyond 200 nautical miles, even this option could not be used. Also, if a person’s life is in serious danger, there was always an option of diverting the ship, but then the decision would be a serious blow to the company from a financial perspective.

With the advent of satellite communication, ways of providing medical aid to patients onboard a ship also changed. A new term, telemedicine, came into being and started providing remote medical aid to seafarers using high technology such as emails and live video footage. Telemedicine has now become the new face of providing medical aid at sea.


Telemedicine is a technology that uses modern methods such as email, face-to-face video, and audio communication to treat a diseased or injured person on a ship. In the early days, telemedicine had serious problems such as inferior video quality, limited file transfer, and network restrictions. Moreover, only recorded video and audio files could be transferred and those, too, of only short lengths. Now because of the many new satellites launched, the potential of telemedicine has increased from a file transfer medium to a fully capable live video exchanging device.

How does Telemedicine Work?

Telemedicine is a whole new way of communicating from the ship to the shore and vice-verse in times of medical emergencies. The working of telemedicine can be divided into three main stages:

  1. The medical personnel onboard the ship
  2. The medical advisor panel on shore
  3. The monitoring device and satellite

Telemedicine makes the whole remote diagnostic process very realistic. The injured or diseased person on the ship is monitored using a special device that involves taking real time measurements of diagnostic conditions (signs and symptoms) like the patient’s pulse rate, blood pressure, and cardiac trace or electrocardiogram. The medical panel on shore analyzes the situation and parameters and provides the right aid to the patient. Telemedicine also facilitates providing timely advice for injuries involving open wounds through the taking and transmission of high resolution pictures of the injury.

Shipping companies have begun investing heavily in telemedicine facilities because of the several benefits it provides. They realize that in a mishap involving a human element, there is nothing more important than saving the life of the seafarer. Also, the right investment in telemedicine can also save a large amount of money later, which a ship diversion or other methods never will.


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