Can Telemedicine Be The Future For Mariners At Sea?

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Today’s communication techniques have achieved the higher duty of care to passengers and crew onboard the ship at sea. Yes.  Maritime Telemedical Assistance Services(TMAS) are the answer for medical emergencies at sea.

What is Telemedicine:

  • Referred to as RADIOMEDICO services, it provides remote expert medical advice for seafarers, passengers and others on board ships.
  • Modern communication techniques more frequently, including satellite and internet, provide video as well as audio communications with medical providers.
  • TMAS specialists can offer assistance to a Master in the diagnosis and treatment of ill or injured individuals on board a ship or offshore facilities where shore-based care is not possible.
  • Prompt and effective treatment can make the difference between life and death or permanent disability.

Pros and Cons:

The advantages of using the TMAS are:

  • Reductions in deviations and dangerous emergency evacuation operations
  • Reductions in number of individuals needing treatment on arrival in port
  • Enhanced goodwill of crews knowing they have access to advanced medical services
  • Reductions in Lost-time illness and injuries

While the disadvantages of such medical services are:

  • Use of sophisticated electronic equipment requires extensive training – misuse of or mishandling the equipment could have very serious consequences
  • Shore-side doctors may not have specific training/experience relevant in a marine environment
  • There may be language difficulties between the ill/injured individual and the shore-side medical personnel
  • Many countries have restrictions on sharing an individual’s medical records and conditions, which may be violated by using a TMAS service without the express permission of the person being treated.

International standards:

  1. The implementation of the International Labour Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention (ILO/MLC) and the International Maritime Organization Standards for Training, Certification and Watchkeeping, Manila 2010 (IMO/STCW) amendments has nourished the use of telemedicines.
  2. From 1 January 2012, ocean going vessels and flag states have been required to “provide seafarers medical care as nearly as possible with the care they would receive ashore” and to “ensure by a prearranged system that medical advice by radio or satellite communication to ships at sea is available at any hour of the day or night”.
  3. But, it differs from one flag to another. They rely instead on countries providing TMAS through MRCC’s (Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres) or on employers arranging emergency response and remote medical assistance via private sector contractors.

Availability of Telemedicine:

There is a huge difference between private and public TMAS, which is very important to be noted.

Public: Public TMAS services are available world-wide and free of charge with many nations providing access to all ships and others providing services only to ships of their flag.  One of the oldest and possibly most well-known of the public services is Comité International Radio-Maritime (CIRM).   Located in Rome, the CIRM has been providing 24 hour services since 1935. A comprehensive list of public providers can be found here.

Private: The number of private TMAS services has increased significantly during the past ten years and there are many services and pricing plans available with fierce competition on service and pricing levels.  Some private TMAS providers offer enhanced onboard medical capacities which can include state of the art medical diagnostic tools.  Such tools (when used by trained crew members) can increase the odds for a better outcome for an ill or injured individual.  Gard does not cover general subscription or membership charges for private TMAS services, as these are deemed to be operational costs and expenses for the owner’s account.

Source: Gard