The Royal Flying Doctors

April 22, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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Students with their mentor whilst on their Gap Medics placement at Iringa Regional Hospital in Tanzania. With a landmass almost the size of the USA, but a population almost half the size of California State, Australia is a big country with a lot of space. For Australians in the Outback accessing medical attention from remote and rural communities has always been problematic.

Today a unique and highly successful organisation provides medical care to remote communities: the Royal Flying Doctors of Australia.

History of Royal Flying Doctors in Australia

In the 1920’s in rural Victoria, two doctors serviced communities across more than 2 million square kilometres of land. Realising the gap in adequate care, the Presbyterian Church tasked a minster named Reverend John Flynn to investigate ways in which better medical access could be provided to Australians living in remote areas.

Quickly realising that drastic and creative measures were needed, Flynn decided that providing a ‘mantle of safety’ for people living in isolated homes was the answer. Flynn helped open more hospitals in bush communities and proposed a flying medical response team that could reach families that couldn’t access the bush hospital system.

On 15 May 1928, Flynn’s work was realised and the Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service (renamed the Royal Flying Doctor Service later) opened in Cloncurry, Queensland.

The first RFDS flight took off from Cloncurry on May 17th 1928 in a loaned DH-50 plane from the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service (now Qantas). The service went national in 1930 as the Aerial Medical Service, changing its name to Flying Doctor Service in 1942 before receiving the ‘Royal’ moniker in 1955.

Radio communication was the key to the RFDS. Original battery-less radio transmitted information through Morse code invented by Alfred Traeger, before voice communication was made possible in the 1930’s. Traeger’s technology also allowed the School of the Air to operate, linking children in remote communities to teachers through radio.

The service flew more than 20,000 miles in its first 50 flights and became the first comprehensive aero ambulance service in the world. The project was an immediate success and the birth of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia as it is today. In the 1950’s Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies acknowledged that the RFDS was ‘perhaps the single greatest contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant country that we have witnessed in our time.’

What aircrafts do the Royal Flying Doctors use?

The RFDS use specially modified King Air and PC-12 aircrafts that are equipped to be an emergency room in the sky. They carry emergency medical equipment like neonatal incubators and resuscitation devices as well as an additional battery to provide power to medical oxygen and suction systems and a specialised communication system for the pilot and medical staff in the cabin to communicate. Most flights typically have only a nurse and pilot aboard with doctors on call.

What do the Royal Flying Doctors do today?

The role of the RFDS today is to provide 24-hour emergency assistance to patients with life-threatening illnesses or accidents in remote areas. In 2005 the RFDS treated 234,783 patients, averaging 643 patients a day. In that year on average the RFDS did 91 aerial evacuations per day with a total of 33,339 in the year.

The RFDS provides a wide role to outback communities including:

– Emergency medical response.

– Providing advice from nurses and doctors over the radio or telephone.

– Patient transfer from small rural hospitals to larger city health facilities.

– Operating health clinics in remote areas and communities to provide access to community health nurses, dentists, mental health workers and specialists.

– Providing medical assistance to outback travellers who carry satellite phones or two-way radios tuned into the RFDS frequency due to poor phone coverage.

The RFDS own a fleet of 61 fully instrumented aircraft, which operate from 21 bases across Australia.

Working for Royal Flying Doctor Service

The RFDS employs over 1,100 people in a range of positions including nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, pilots, aviation engineers, human resources, marketing & public relations, finance, and IT professionals. Each of the 21 bases has between 20-180 employees who work Australia wide.