Cruise Ship

Making Waves with Medicine

It’s no secret that the Port of Galveston is home to several cruise ships, and that people sail away several times a week seeking warm sunshine and cool sands. 

However, when travelers embark on their voyage, they likely don’t anticipate needing medical attention during their trip. When those medical needs arise onboard a cruise ship, the in-house medical staff is available to provide immediate care. 

With the wide variety of medical encounters that may take place, sometimes specialized care is needed. A new partnership between UTMB Health and Carnival Cruise Lines provides the expertise of UTMB doctors via a phone call or video chat.

Dr. David Reynoso, an infectious disease and travel medicine specialist, is one of the UTMB physicians who has fielded some of the calls received since the partnership launched this summer.

“I did not know what to envision when I learned we were going to take on this contract, but having seen it, I think it’s a good idea,” Reynoso said. “Cases could be routine, urgent, or emergent, and we are asked when we can do peer-to-peer telephone consults as cases come up.” 

When the onboard physician determines a consult is needed, the ship connects with the UTMB Access Center to have a phone conference set up with a UTMB physician on call in the needed specialty. Because ships are sailing all over the world, calls may come in at any time of the day or night. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Carnival accommodated about 13 million guests across 87 ships every year, with about 325,000 people on board at any given time. On average, more than 1.5 million medical encounters took place each year.  

Medical staffing on each ship is correlated to the ship’s size, with up to two physicians and five nurses. Ship physicians must hold current certification in basic and advanced cardiac life support and cardiac care, have experience in general medicine or general practice including emergency or critical care, and have one to three years clinical experience and minor surgical skills. 

Carnival reports that the top five onboard medical encounters are cardiovascular, trauma and injury, orthopedic, respiratory and ENT. All specialties represented at UTMB are available for cruise ship consults, but those most frequently consulted have been infectious disease, dermatology, gastroenterology and cardiology. 

Reynoso has found that the cruise ships are well equipped with the tools to perform the basic lab tests and imaging that would be requested by a consulting physician. In addition to standard life-saving equipment, such as defibrillators and external pacemakers, many ships are equipped with thrombolytic therapy, electrocardiograph machines, lab equipment, pulse oximetry and X-ray machines.

Although the partnership launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, as business ramps back up in the cruise industry, the number of passengers is eventually expected to climb toward pre-COVID levels—which means more medical encounters, and more consults to call upon UTMB physicians’ expertise.