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What It’s Like to Work As a Cruise-Ship Doctor

Dr. Gergely Tóth wanted to pursue a career in medicine and work on cruises.
During his shifts, which can last 24 hours, he has to be prepared for any crisis.
Tóth said he loves the job because he can travel the world with his family while earning a living.
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This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Dr. Gergely Tóth, a cruise-ship doctor. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
As a medical student in Hungary in the early 2000s, I heard plenty of stories from young people who’d worked on cruises.
The adventures, experiences, and financial opportunities this lifestyle offered piqued my interest. But I knew I wanted to work there as a doctor.
I’ve always wanted to work on cruises
In August 2009, after working in a country hospital in Hungary for seven years, I became serious about working on cruises.
I’d just started as a resident medical officer at Nuffield Health Cheltenham Hospital in England, and every day I’d see pages of cruise-ship job ads in the paper.
Having more medical experience under my belt, I emailed three cruise companies enquiring about how to become a cruise doctor.
Two companies responded. One didn’t have any opportunities at the time. Royal Caribbean International offered to have a 15-minute call where they assessed my language skills and work experience.
They also asked about the Hungarian healthcare system, as they were more familiar with the UK one. For this reason, having a UK medical license at the time helped my journey immensely. I’d paid a fee to swap my Hungarian license for a British one when I arrived in the UK.
Cruise-ship doctors need specific qualifications to practice
Requirements to become a cruise doctor include three years of emergency-room experience, some general-practitioner experience, and specific training, such as advanced cardiac life support, pediatric advanced life support, and advanced trauma life support, that need to be refreshed every two years.
Five weeks after my interview in London, I got accepted in February 2010. Seven months later, at 32, I was on my way to Miami for a one-week training before joining one of the Celebrity Cruises for six months, departing from San Francisco. The 1,800-passenger ship seemed huge when I first saw it. Since then I’ve worked on cruises three times that size.
Cruises have full medical teams and facilities
Depending on the size of the cruise, the medical team consists of five to nine people. On smaller ships, with up to 3,500 passengers and 1,500 staff, there are two doctors, three nurses, and sometimes a medical secretary. On larger cruises, with 6,500 passengers and 2,200 staff, there are three doctors, five nurses, and a secretary.
The medical center is an onboard hospital, because we have to be prepared for everything.
We try to get people with serious conditions to land safely and on time, but sometimes it’s not possible. On board, there are consultation rooms, a reception area, a waiting room, an ER, an ICU room, ward rooms, X-ray machines, laboratory equipment, and a pharmacy.
A cruise doctor’s schedule is intense
Doctors usually work for four months and have two months off. Since my first contract, I’ve only been taking short contracts to fill any gaps in cruise schedules.
When another doctor can’t board for any reason, I will replace them for between a week and three months. Sometimes they let me know about the opportunity months in advance; other times I’ll get a call two days before I’m needed.
Six-month contracts were too long for me. My family can join me on the cruise for these short periods, and I don’t miss out on big family celebrations in Hungary. I spend four to five months a year on cruises and the rest of my time in Hungary.
When I’m not sailing I work at Hungarian hospitals, but the good pay on the cruises means I can spend more time with my family in Hungary.
We work 24-hour shifts on the cruise ship
We do 24-hour shifts. Consultation hours are from 8 to 11 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. For the remaining time of the day, I’m on call.
There’s a dedicated medical-emergency phone number for passengers and staff. The nurse will then decide whether it requires urgent attention or give them an appointment to come within office hours.
On large cruises, it means a daily 15 hours of work and nine hours of being on-call, then getting 24 hours off.
Since I’ve been a senior doctor for more than a decade now, I have a lot more responsibilities, which take up an additional six to eight hours of my days off. Submitting medical reports to countries and port authorities, checking medicine orders with the chief nurse, and ensuring medical devices work properly or determining if they need to be fixed or replaced are just some of the duties I undertake.
I try to get off the cruise and experience the ports
I’m not an anxious person, but I always try and get off the ship when I can, because it’s very busy from the second I board the ship to the flight home.
I love to go on trips and explore new places with my family. It’s important for us to see where and how the locals live in each destination. I love food and good coffee, and we have our favorite cafés and restaurants in different countries where the staff greet us like friends.
However, sometimes these outings are cut short due to emergency calls or constant emails. On my last six-week contract, I only managed to leave the ship three times.
People die on cruises, like everywhere else, and sometimes you know them
People do die on cruise ships, like anywhere — not just passengers but staff as well. And it isn’t easy, especially when it’s someone I know, because most people will need to see a doctor at some point on the ship.
Each cruise has a designated medical-operations manager available 24/7 based in the health center in Miami. While they can advise on how to handle a specific case, the small team on the boat has to deliver. We’re a tight-knit group.
There’s no place for arguments, rivalry, or hostilities when we’re responsible for so many people’s lives.
As a cruise-ship doctor, I have a good lifestyle
While my role is equally demanding and rewarding, what I love most about being a cruise doctor is the freedom it gives and that I get to travel the world with my family . If it wasn’t for cruising, I wouldn’t have this lifestyle both financially and timewise.
It also allows me to spend more time with my family in between contracts in Hungary, because I don’t have to work two or three jobs anymore.



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