Radio Medical receives about 500 calls from crews on Swedish and foreign ships each year. Problems with digestive organs and musculoskeletal disorders are the most common reasons.
Since way back in 1922, Radio Medical has supported seafarers with medical advice. In the beginning, communication was by telegraphists using Morse code. The phone is now generally used, with additional photos if necessary. According to the Swedish Maritime Administration’s statute, TMAS (Telemedical Advice Services) must be contacted if there is the slightest doubt regarding illness or accidents on board. Calls go via the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, JRCC, and are forwarded to a doctor on call at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg. Around 40 doctors are involved in the service for ships, which is manned around the clock, 365 days a year.
”The doctor on call always has a phone in his coat pocket and calls from ships are always given priority,” says Karin Westlund, nurse at Sahlgrenska and coordinator for Radio Medical.
The majority of those who contact TMAS are from Swedish ships, and about 20% are on foreign or Swedish-controlled ships sailing under other flags. The number of calls is relatively constant at around 500 a year, but the proportion of passenger cases has increased from 19% in 2007 to 37% in 2012.
Most treated on board
The most common illnesses among both crew and passengers are stomach and bowel complaints, and problems with muscles and bones. Approximately half of the latter category have been caused by some form of accident. Cardiovascular diseases are relatively common among passengers, while skin and eye complaints more frequently affect shipboard personnel.
”Passengers belong to a completely different category than those who work on board. They are often older and some suffer from osteoporosis. They are easily injured when they drink and the boat is rolling,” says Karin Westlund.
All doctors on call at Radio Medical are specialists in internal medicine and have undergone a special training for shipping. They learn about the medical organisation on board, what medical skills they can expect from officers, access to medical equipment and what medicines are on board, as well as evacuation options. Of the medical cases reviewed by TMAS, about 75% can be treated on board. Between 10-15% are evacuated, and the remainder are given health care in the next port.