Who Would Have Thought that Seafarers Would Support Telemedicine? Why Not.

Well, just when you thought the support for telemedicine couldn’t come from anywhere else, the maritime professionals’ trade union, Nautilus International, says the technology might not be such a bad thing for its industry. In basic terms, through a study it conducted with its members in regard to the technology, much more must be done to improve the accessibility and quality of healthcare services onboard seafaring vessels.

What does that mean? Employing the use of telemedicine. In fact, 98 percent of seafarers say that the use of telemedicine on vessels would save lives. According to figures cited to the Maritime Labour Convention, all ships carrying 100 or more crew members and passengers for voyages of three days or more must have a medical doctor onboard. However, the majority of merchant vessels are crewed by fewer than 25 people and, therefore, don’t benefit from an onboard healthcare professional offshore.

When asked if seafarers felt that they had the same quality of healthcare at sea as they did onshore, 82 percent of those surveyed stated “no” and the main reasons given related to the lack of access to a general practitioner.

According to respondents of the study, 68 percent of those questioned had been on a vessel that was forced to divert because of a medical emergency; 70 percent had been on a ship where there had been a medical evacuation. “Emergencies experienced at sea ranged from severed limbs and broken bones, to gunshot wounds, tropical diseases, allergic reactions and sudden cardiac arrest,” reports Health IT Outcomes.

If injury or illness occurs at sea, a main concern is how seafarers get adequate care. Sixty-six percent said that they would be concerned about how to handle a medical emergency; 69 percent “surveyed said that they would be confident making a decision on whether an injury, or illness was severe enough to warrant a diversion, or evacuation, if they had a trained medical consultant on the end of the phone.”

Nautilus International says that in many cases crew rely on a physical copy of the “Ship Captain's Medical Guide” for medical guidance when working on board a ship. When asked what would make them feel safer at sea, 82 percent of those questioned specified the ability to transfer live vital signs to a medical professional who can diagnose patients and offer advice.

It should be noted that the study was sponsored by Martek Marine, a provider of a telemedicine solution, iVital, that the firm says specifically “advances offshore medical care and saves lives.”

“The survey results show that crew, often with little medical training, are too often left with an impossible decision to make when someone falls ill offshore,” said Paul Luen, Martek, CEO of Martek Marine, in a statement. “They’re forced to judge the severity of a condition, typically without the assistance of diagnostic equipment, leaving them with the choice of risking the wellbeing of the crew member, or substantial diversion costs. Telemedicine is the answer.”

Scott Rupp's picture

Scott Rupp


Scott E. Rupp is a writer and an award-winning journalist focused on healthcare technology. He has worked as a public relations executive for a major electronic health record/practice management vendor, and he currently manages his own agency, millerrupp. In addition to writing for a variety of publications, Scott also offers his insights on healthcare technology and its leaders on his site, Electronic Health Reporter.

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