What role has the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) been playing in the vaccine rollout across Australia, and in the transfer of Covid-19 patients between hospitals?
The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) looks after the health needs of people in rural and remote Australia. As far as the vaccine rollout goes, the RFDS had a pivotal role in vaccinating people in these areas. RFDS has a unique advantage in that we have planes to enable us to travel to some of these remote communities which, in some cases, are several hundreds of kilometers from a regional center. Also, RFDS is known to many of these communities and this is giving us an advantage to provide vaccinations, particularly overcoming vaccine hesitancy.
Vaccinating these communities is especially important because many of the remote communities have a population that is primarily indigenous people. These people are more vulnerable to the effects of Covid because of underlying health issues. Also, because of the living conditions there is much overcrowding and lack of sanitation in many of the communities and this makes it more likely that Covid will spread.
From the beginning of the outbreak, RFDS has been involved with the transfer of Covid patients between hospitals. It has been an interesting journey. At the beginning of the pandemic there was a lot of fear and anxiety about the transmission of the virus, as well as the uncertainty about access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Our protocols and procedures have evolved and there is much less anxiety about transferring Covid patients as we have learned more about the disease and I have become more familiar with PPE. As well as this, the vaccination of staff has given us all a greater sense of security about our own safety. I should note that along with all healthcare workers in Australia, it is mandatory for all staff working for the organization to be fully vaccinated.
Are you seeing an increase in interest from healthcare workers who have been under a lot of strain during the pandemic and would like to try a different area of healthcare delivery?
Anecdotally, we haven't really had an increase in interest from healthcare workers because of the strain of looking after Covid patients. I think most healthcare workers would realize that working for RFDS entails the transfer of Covid patients and the stresses that this involves.
Did the RFDS (South Eastern Section) invest in any new medical equipment in 2021?
RFDS found the same problems that were encountered throughout the world at the beginning of the pandemic. Particularly, the procurement of PPE was very difficult. We invested in Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR’s) at the beginning of the pandemic. This gave us some security regarding PPE, as we were unsure about supply of P2/N95 masks at that time. We did find there were some limitations in their use, in particular difficulty with communication. There was a variety of decontamination processes in different parts of Australia. In NSW we used a product called Permaguard, which is an alcohol-based spray. We also use ultraviolet (UV-C) for decontamination of equipment.
What financial pressures has the RFDS endured as a result of Covid-19?
RFDS is a charity, and as such is dependent on donations and fundraising activities. Because of the lockdown, fundraising activities were severely curtailed. However, this was offset with some government grants and significant donations to help the Covid response.
How important are corporate partners to the services the RFDS provides?
We have several corporate partners, as well as major private donors who are integral to our functioning.
Medical and flight crew training facilities are some of the key investments air medical operators are making at the moment; what has the RFDS done to ensure currency with best practice for their flight and medical crews?
At our Dubbo, NSW, base we have a state-of-the-art simulation centre. We use this daily if operationally possible to practice medical procedures and team interactions. We train with our colleagues in Sydney as well as having state-of-the-art medical equipment.
Is the RFDS currently undertaking any clinical research for which you can share an update?
RFDS has a few projects. We are doing a qualitative study on the psychological effect of Covid-19 on staff. We are also looking at re-presentation of retrieval patients.
What makes the RFDS unique when it comes to its aeromedical retrieval service?
I think the two factors that make RFDS unique are:
- History – we had our first flight in 1928
- Geographic area covered by RFDS, being the whole of Australia.
Does the RFDS (South Eastern Section) have a fleet renewal strategy to take the section’s services forward?
We use Beechcraft King Air B200s and B300s and we have just had a renewal of our aircraft.
What do you envision for the future of the RFDS?
Our aim for the future of RFDS is to continue to be at the cutting edge of retrieval in terms of equipment and training. The organisation has been expanding its primary health services to provide General Practice, mental health, dentistry and other allied healthcare as this is where the long-term health benefits can be seen in the rural population.