Dive medicine is a medical specialty that focuses on the medical needs of people who dive to various depths in both ocean and freshwater. This includes recreational divers, work crews, search and rescue teams, and others who may have a reason to be in the water. It also includes hyperbaric medicine, the use of pressurized chambers in medical therapy, as such chambers were originally developed to treat patients with medical problems related to diving accidents like surfacing too quickly.
There are a number of components to dive medicine. Practitioners need to have an intimate understanding of what happens to the human body under pressure, especially in very deep water. Dissolved gases in the blood and tissues can start to behave abnormally during a dive, whether divers are surfacing or going down. Doctors may also need to consider how medical conditions may interact with high pressure; a patient may be healthy at the surface, for example, but could be at risk in deep water.
Dive medicine also involves determining fitness to dive on the basis of medical and travel histories. Before patients can dive safely, they must be cleared by physicians who can confirm that they will be able to dive without personal risks. The conditions at the dive site may also be a cause for concern. Divers can encounter hazards like natural or human-made snags, such as protruding metal on an oil drilling rig that might catch a diver and cause injuries or trap her underwater. Underwater welding and other construction activities like setting explosives can also come with medical risks.
At a work site where diving takes place, a specialist in dive medicine may set protocols for divers to follow, including mandatory stops on the way to the surface to decompress for safety. Some work sites may keep medical crews on hand to be available in the event of an accident if there are concerns about safety. Dive medicine specialists can also participate in forensic analysis to determine how and why an accident occurred with the goal of preventing future accidents and determining legal responsibility.
Doctors who want to specialize in dive medicine can pursue residency and fellowship opportunities. Many of the best options are in medical facilities near the ocean, where divers work and play in the water on a regular basis and provide a steady supply of patients. The military can also provide advanced training in this field, along with research opportunities, for doctors interested in military service.