In 1939, Dr Keith Sweetman identified that a lot of radio time was being wasted by questioning the outposts as to what was available in their first aid kits. The majority had haphazard collections of patient medicines, "a first aid set augmented by this and that."
In 1942, the annual RFDS Federal Council meeting decided on standardisation of the medicine chests and their contents and then in 1989, the RFDS took total responsibility for administering medical chests.
RFDS medical chests contain a range of pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical items, which enable emergency and non-emergency treatment to be given to people living and working in remote areas. The chests are an important tool to enable RFDS medical practitioners to treat people on-site for many conditions and to provide necessary treatment (e.g. pain relief) for those requiring emergency evacuation. They also provide enormous comfort to those living in the outback.
The medical chest has evolved over many years to cover a number of medical conditions that would be difficult for people living and working in remote areas to treat. As such, it contains a large number of "prescription only" pharmaceutical items. It is a condition for the provision of the chest that these drugs be used only on the advice of a registered RFDS doctor.
Across Australia, the RFDS is responsible for over 3,000 medical chests located in remote locations across Australia including parks, police stations, remote homesteads, pastoral stations, hotels, roadhouses, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, outback schools and mining exploration sites. The contents of the chest are reviewed regularly at a national level to ensure relevancy and currency of pharmaceuticals.
How it works
Here is an example.
A worker on a cattle station or exploration camp has an eye infection. It isn't serious enough for an evacuation flight but it needs treatment. The station is 200 km from the nearest doctor or nursing post so a long road trip would be required to have it seen to.
If there is a medical chest at their location, the worker can call the RFDS on our medical advice line and ask for medical assistance. The call would then be transferred to an RFDS doctor, who will speak to the patient and diagnose the condition over the phone. The doctor will then prescribe a drug from the chest, for example, number "134" antibiotic eye drops, and give the patient instructions on what to do.
At the end of the phone consultation, the doctor will also provide the patient with a consult number which is needed to re-order the drug once it has been used.
This scenario is also applicable to emergency situations. In the event of something serious like an amputation, crush injury or severe burn, medical chest custodians have access to RFDS doctors who will assess the situation via phone, prescribe appropriate pain relief and/or other medication, and arrange for an aeromedical evacuation if necessary.