To understand the Flying Doctor (as it is often fondly called), you need to understand the environment in which it operates. Australia is a big continent of 7.69 million square kilometres – yet it only has a population of 24 million people. This equates to only three people per square kilometre, a fraction of the population density of countries such as the UK or US. With more than two-thirds of Australia’s population residing along the coastlines, the remaining third live in rural, remote and very remote areas that don’t enjoy the same level of health service provision as metropolitan centres. Country people see a doctor at half the rate, a dentist at one-third of the rate and a mental health specialist at one-fifth the rate of those in the city.
The Flying Doctor was created to solve the problem of health service access and this purpose has kept the Service always evolving, using innovative technology to better service those that live, work and travel in country Australia.
It has traditionally been known for aeromedical rescue, but it is less known that the Flying Doctor has a major focus these days on primary healthcare such as GP services, perinatal/postnatal care, dental and mental health services, and the management of chronic disease to healthy ageing.
The key goal is to reduce the disparity in health outcomes between the city and the bush.
With 23 bases and 77 planes, the Flying Doctor is Australia’s third-largest airline. There are both Pilatus (single prop) and Beechcraft (dual prop) aircraft, and more recently the Flying Doctor welcomed their first three Pilatus PC-24 jets.
The Flying Doctor now also has a vast fleet of road health service vehicles and ambulances to provide non-emergency care. From dental trucks, optical health trucks and patient transport services, the fleet of the Flying Doctor grows to fit need.
On a given day, there are a number of missions that the Flying Doctor performs. In the last 12 months, the Service had more than 350,000 patient contacts.
Aeromedical rescue: If you are in Australia and are injured or need critical hospital care, the Flying Doctor utilises any of 3,000 dirt runways or sealed state highways to reach people needing help and getting them to a tertiary hospital. From car accidents to farm injuries, from premature labour to heart attacks – the Flying Doctor can generally reach anyone within two hours, no matter where they have gotten into trouble.
Primary healthcare clinics: every single day of the year, the Flying Doctor provides clinics to 44 remote communities. This regular service brings health professionals to areas that simply don’t have them and will include not just a GP, but often also a dentist, a mental health worker or a physiotherapist.
Telehealth and pharmaceutical services: with people often living several hours from their closest township, telehealth services are a vital way for many Australians to be able to speak to a doctor and get assistance. The Flying Doctor has a 24/7 telehealth service, so patients can talk to a doctor and not just get advice, but also get directed to pharmaceuticals in one of the more than 3,500 medical chests that are strategically located across the country.
Drive-in services: based on need, the Flying Doctor now has dental trucks that drive into a remote community that has no access to a dentist, and stay for one to two weeks at a time to provide this important service to locals. Returning every six months, they can help educate their patients on dental hygiene and also repair and restore teeth/gum health. Also based on need, the Flying Doctor now provides daily non-emergency patient transport, helping get people to specialist care when needed.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service is always pushing the boundaries of technology – in fact, the Flying Doctor was the first civilian organisation to use aircraft for medical evacuations back in the 1920s and also the first to use the pedal radio – back when there was simply no communication lines other than horseback.
Today, the Flying Doctor uses advanced communications systems and satellites, the latest technology in both fleet and medical equipment, and is always exploring new medical devices that can help to improve the disparity in health outcomes between the city and the bush.
Secrets to success
Lana Mitchell, Director of Communications for the RFDS, said: “The Royal Flying Doctor Service has been voted the most reputable Australian charity for eight years running. Our success has always gone back to the professionalism and dedication of our staff, the close relationship we have with rural communities to provide vitally needed emergency and primary healthcare services, and the determination to provide service in areas where climate, distance and landscapes can make it very difficult.”
There will always be work for the Flying Doctor – but the next 10 years will be challenging as the Australian population ages and the need for chronic disease management and aged healthcare increases.
According to the stats, 11.8 million Australians currently live with at least one chronic illness, with 2028 forecasts equalling 13.8 million, a national increase of 15.6 per cent. Yet chronic illness prevalence is forecast to remain higher in remote Australia than metropolitan areas. Preventative healthcare services are therefore becoming increasingly important for the Flying Doctor.