For many nurses, one of the most appealing things about their profession is its variety. Registered nurses are used in clinical and non-clinical settings throughout the healthcare industry, and in a variety of non-conventional settings. For example, cruise ships must keep a small staff of nurses to treat their crew and passengers. It might sound like a permanent vacation, but cruise ship nurses work hard and often treat passengers with serious illnesses.
The Cruise Environment
Cruise ships can be away from shore for several days at a time, so ship infirmaries are set up as mini hospitals. Most contain surgical facilities, defibrillators, ECG monitors and a full-range dispensary, so the ship's medical personnel can handle anything up to a massive heart attack or emergency surgery. Most ships carry one or two doctors and a handful of nurses to treat thousands of passengers and crew, so you'll be busy whenever you're on duty. Usually you'll work six months at a time, then get one or two months off.
As a ship's nurse you'll provide basic medical care to the officers and crew, maintaining their charts and medical records on an ongoing basis. Passengers will need routine care with seasickness, as well as relief from the indigestion and hangovers they earn from overindulging in shipboard pleasures. Patients with existing medical conditions might require monitoring while they're on board, and you'd also respond to any emergencies that occur during the trip. Medical staff usually live near the infirmary, so you can pick up your bag on the way to any emergency calls.
Aside from the regular RN positions, many ships employ a chief nurse. The chief nurse position is reserved for someone with years of experience on cruise ships or on shore. Chief nurses still practice and see patients, but their primary role is adminstrative. You'd supervise and schedule the nursing staff, place orders and maintain a suitable inventory of supplies and pharmaceuticals, as well as oversee billing and patient record keeping. You'd report to the ship's onboard doctors, as well as the company's head office fleet nurse.
Like many shore-based facilities, some cruise ships recruit nurse practitioners to provide a higher level of nursing care for passengers and crew. Nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat most routine medical problems, and can also prescribe medications as needed. This enables the ship's doctors to focus their time and attention on patients with the most serious illnesses or injuries. Nurse practitioners also assist the ship's doctors in treating complex cases and performing minor surgery.
Each cruise line has its own hiring criteria, but usually you'll need to have at least three years' experience before they'll consider hiring you. You'll need to have certification in Advanced Clinical Life Support procedures, and ideally a background in emergency medicine, trauma or intensive care. Compensation is usually competitive with shore-based jobs, and also includes your room, meals and transportation to and from the ship. Some lines also cover the cost of malpractice insurance. Some nurses appreciate the variety of practice and the opportunity to build their savings, and remain in cruise work for the long term. Others find it claustrophobic, and go back to conventional employment after a brief stint on the water.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.