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The Cruise Ship Doctor

Every once in a while, we’ll have a physician on our communities post fantasizing about what it would be like to travel all day, and someone will mention the idea of cruise ship medicine. There’s always a lot of interest in what this actually looks like! Cruise ships are isolated, floating communities while they are out to sea, and need to be self-sustainable traveling between ports and, to some extent, while docked at ports. If you are looking for opportunities to travel while practicing medicine, an opportunity as a cruise ship doctor could be a fun role to consider.  Treatment aboard a cruise can range anywhere from slip and falls to heart attacks to rapidly spreading infectious diseases, affording many different opportunities to utilize your diverse medical experience to help passengers while enjoying a cruise ship during your time off. Below, we cover the role of a cruise ship doctor, how much they typically pay, and how to land this type of position, based on the feedback and experience of members of our online physician communities.

What to expect when working as a cruise ship doctor

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What does work as a cruise ship doctor look like?

Although many doctors instinctively picture life as a cruise ship physician as relatively low key, being a cruise ship physician comes with a lot of responsibility and unpredictable timing. Cruise ship doctors treat passengers and crew members for a wide range of different ailments and emergencies. While the medical staff on hand to assist may be limited depending on your exact setup, most large cruise ships have a fairly well setup and equipped medical facility including exam rooms, a pharmacy, EKG capabilities, lab testing, an X-ray machine, a triage area, and more.

Different types of cases you might encounters we’ve heard from physicians in our communities include:

  • Treating common ailments such as motion sickness, ear infections, UTIs, etc.

  • Simple laceration suturing or wound care

  • Broken ribs or other bones from falls or adventure excursions

  • Pregnancy issues

  • Allergic reactions

  • Heart attacks, strokes, and pulmonary embolisms

  • Cases of rapidly spreading infectious diseases

In critical situations, a cruise ship doctor may even run a mini ICU until they are able to arrange for drop off or transfer the patient to local care.

Different cruises can run different schedules for their medical staff, depending on the size of the boat and the cruising population. Some examples include:

  • Daily morning and evening shifts of around three hours, including being on call outside of the scheduled hours for emergencies

  • Working 24 hours on / 24 hours off, with on call duty on the off day

Due to the isolated nature of the position and the number of passengers and crew abroad, many cruise ship doctors often find themselves handling patients during their on-call hours as most cruise lines have infirmaries with staff available around the clock for care.

Does this mean you won’t be able to get off the ship while docked in Aruba for a snorkeling excursion? Flexibility and rules for disembarkation shifted during COVID-19, but there are opportunities to enjoy crew excursions or the ship amenities during your time off. Check the current policies of the specific cruise lines you’re interested in working for.

Who is the cruise ship doctor role a good fit for?

While short-term contracts for a few weeks at a time used to be more widely available, a lot of cruise ships have switched to longer contracts in the past several years. Doctors hoping to work in cruise ship medicine can expect longer contracts of around a few months long, which makes this role great for locums physicians, retired physicians, and physicians working part-time. One example of a structure is four months on, two months off, but contracts vary by cruise line and may be able to be customized in conjunction with the other medical staff to create a schedule that’s mutually acceptable for all.

The size of the ship you’re working on will play a role in determining how much medical staff if hired by the ship. In general, cruise lines staff at least one physician and two nurses for each sailing. Larger ships may have two doctors with three or four nurses aboard. Depending on the situation, you may find yourself working almost entirely alone, so you should feel comfortable with handling a wide variety of cases with little to no supervision or assistance if necessary.

Physicians typically hired for these positions have:

  • Completed medical training/residency

  • A minimum of 3 years of postgraduate experience

  • May or may not be board certified

  • Fluency in the ship’s predominant language(s) (and almost always include English)

  • Advanced life support certifications

Physicians that are a good fit:

  • Physicians in specialties that have a diverse skill set and body of knowledge across systems, such as emergency medicine, family medicine, and internal medicine, as well as basic procedural experience

  • Physicians with previous military experience (especially if they served on a ship)

  • Ones who can handle a high level of flexibility and work well on a team

  • Can think and problem solve quickly on the spot

  • Already have locums experience or can easily get up to speed on a new system/environment easily

  • Ones hoping to avoid crummy weather for a few months of the year back home

Consider a different gig if:

  • You get seasick

  • You are very specialized in what you do at your day job

  • You prefer your time off to be completely disconnected

  • You don’t want to be away from home for long periods of time

  • You enjoy working with a team or having other physicians around to consult

What does being a cruise ship doctor pay?

Several members of our online physician communities have shared their experiences and have enjoyed the work over the years, though they caution this gig isn’t as financially lucrative as others, given the industry.

Pay can vary widely based on factors such as years of experience, hours expected, number of other medical staff and which cruise line you contract with. In general, we’ve found that doctors earn between $7,000-$15,000, but have heard outliers above $25,000-$30,000 a month, especially if there’s an urgent need for a scheduled sailing where a ship lost coverage.

On top of the contractor pay, most cruise lines also offer benefits such as free food and a single cabin accommodation while abroad the cruise. Cruise ship doctors also get free travel benefits for the cruise lines they work for.

How do I get a position as a cruise ship doctor?

Due to the unique situation of these positions, it’s a lot harder to use your professional network to gain an advantage in securing a role as a cruise ship doctor. That said, if you know a colleague who is currently working in cruise ship medicine or has in the past, definitely reach out to them for their experience and recommendations as they might be able to connect you directly with the HR department for the cruise line they work with.

Otherwise, check out job boards and the career websites for the different cruise lines you’re interested in, or consider reaching out to the cruise ship companies directly to let them know you’re interested in being contacted when openings come up. Don’t limit yourself to the major commercial cruise lines that instinctively come to mind for many - there are also many different boutique ocean and river cruise lines throughout the world whom you could potentially work for.


While physicians may assume working as a cruise line doctor is an extended paid vacation, the sheer number of potential patients and incidents that can occur aboard a cruise ship can leave doctors feeling like they are working around the clock at times. That said, working a contract for a cruise line can offer travel perks and you may be able to take part in some amazing crew excursions throughout your travels on your off days, as well as be a welcome change of pace. 

Learn more about other locum tenens opportunities for physicians or explore all the different physician side gig opportunities we cover.

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