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Can telemedicine save the shipping industry $168 million per year?

Posted on 17th May 2017

Seafarers are the lifeblood of the shipping industry and are critical to its future sustainability. That said, are we doing enough to ensure the welfare of those at sea? Furthermore, could major improvements to crew welfare save the shipping industry millions of dollars per year?

Is crew welfare key to a safe voyage?

A seafarer’s state of wellbeing can make the difference between a safe transit and an incident with resulting major cost to a shipping company. It’s not then surprising that shipowners are looking for innovative new ways to improve crew welfare and avoid unnecessary disruption and costs. Loneliness, depression, fatigue and stress all add to the problem and are a growing and huge scale problem at sea, due in part to the fast turnaround of ships which has significantly reduced crew’s interest to go ashore.

Improved crew welfare inspires productivity & efficiency

Efforts are being made to improve crew welfare: it is becoming common for ships to have a crew member who is responsible for the welfare of those onboard, such as a ‘welfare officer’ and new initiatives and charters are starting to emerge aimed at improving the welfare of those at sea. Last year, the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) introduced a charter to encourage shipowners to take crew welfare beyond Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) requirements. Owners that meet the charter’s criteria will be demonstrating that they recognise the value of their crew. SSI expects these owners will attract and retain the best talent, which will inspire more productivity and efficiencies within operations.

MLC 2006: medical care must be comparable to that ashore

In terms of crew health, shipowners are obliged under MLC 2006, to ensure that they provide, ‘access to prompt and adequate medical care whilst working on board.’ Seafarers should also be provided, ‘with medical care as comparable as possible to that which is generally available to workers ashore.’

That said, the average merchant vessel is staffed by less than 25 people, meaning it’s not mandatory to have a doctor onboard the vessel and this being the case, the vast majority of ships do not have access to a medical professional when they are offshore. Therefore, when a crew member falls ill, a tough decision often has to be made by the crew.

One in five ships divert due to crew illness each year

Without a doctor and diagnostic equipment, judging the severity of a condition can be very difficult. Continuing a voyage when a crew member falls ill could result in conditions worsening, yet diverting, or arranging a medical evacuation could lead to significant costs and delays. According to a study by the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA) of 23,299 commercial ships with 420,000 crew members, one in five ships are forced to divert due to crew illness each year and the average cost per ship diversion is a staggering $180,000 (€163,750).

Many costly and disruptive diversions are unnecessary

Difficult to diagnose conditions such as gastroenteritis add to the problem. Despite being responsible for a huge number of diversions & medical evacuations, patients typically recover within a few days of going ashore, making the costly and disruptive diversions unnecessary. Another key and growing issue, is the challenge surrounding ongoing monitoring of patients in the case of chronic conditions, or mental health concerns, particularly important on longer voyages.

Telemedicine is the answer according to 98% of seafarers

Telemedicine could provide the answer. In fact, results released in a recent seafarers’ survey carried out by maritime professionals’ trade union Nautilus International and global maritime technology innovator Martek Marine, indicated that 98% of seafarers thought that a greater provision of telemedicine on vessels would not just improve crew welfare, but actually save lives at sea. View the press release here.

What is telemedicine and how does it work?

Telemedicine is the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology. On a vessel, this involves the use of monitoring devices with wireless sensors, such as a; blood pressure monitor; pulse oximeter; IR forehead thermometer; ECG monitor and a glucometer.

The sensors are attached to a crew member to record their vital signs. The vital signs data is transmitted via a wireless connection to an onshore doctor, and this data, combined with a high-definition, one-to-one video service between the doctor and the patient, enable the clinician to make an accurate, informed diagnosis using real patient data, combined with the patient’s medical history.

Martek Marine offer the first complete telemedicine solution available for a monthly fee. Setting the system apart from other telemedicine services, iVital™ is a complete solution: offering the necessary hardware, software and specialist clinical service, which provides access to a team of medical experts who specialise in the health of seafarers.

Foolproof, the medically certified hardware and software can be used by anyone. Wireless sensors are attached to the patient and vital signs data is transmitted to the clinician onshore. The clinician then uses the data, combined with the patient’s medical history and one-to-one video consultation with the patient, to make a quick and accurate diagnosis.

iVital™ advances offshore medical care & ultimately save lives. Further benefits offered by iVital include, improved crew retention, reduced lost time, and reduced unnecessary medical evacuations and diversions. Available with no capital investment, iVital™ is cost-effective and accessible, costing under $10 per day for the complete solution. Just contact the team today to find out more.