Graphic: Alfred Traeger
This year marks a special anniversary for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Here, we look at the innovation and vision that has made it all possible and drives us into the future
Before the Flying Doctor there was little medical help for people who lived in the outback. They had to travel hundreds of kilometres by horse, cart, or camel to reach a doctor, sometimes dying before they received help.
It was the tragic death of West Australian stockman Jimmy Darcy - operated on by postmaster Fred Tuckett with a penknife and some morphine while a doctor in Perth tapped out instructions in morse code - that provided the impetus for an outback aeromedical service.
The Reverend John Flynn of The Australian Inland Mission who was instrumental in setting up nursing services in the outback, first proposed what would become the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
As communications and aviation were still in their infancy, Flynn commissioned inventor Fred Traeger to develop a pedal radio. It allowed people in the bush to communicate with the new Flying Doctor Service, which made its maiden flight on May 17 1928, eleven years after Darcy’s death.
Bold, innovative and uniquely Australian, the Flying Doctor Service quickly established itself as a vital lifeline for those in rural and remote areas, and stories of its
daring rescues became legendary.
Other Flying Doctor innovations such as the medicine chest program introduced in 1942 and the Body Chart which came in 1951 enabled people in the outback to offer treatment for minor injuries/ ailments, and to allow patients to more accurately identify medical issues for doctors over the radio.
Improvements in aviation enabled the RFDS to become a national organisation, covering about 90 per cent of the Australian continent with a so called ‘waiting room’ of more than seven million square kilometres. As technology improved, doctors were able to attend births, perform GP duties, as well as rescues, and dentists were able to offer oral healthcare. This has expanded over time and facilitating healthcare clinics now accounts for about 70 per cent of RFDS business.
Today the RFDS offers a wide range of healthcare clinics such as mental health; dental health; GP service; women’s, children, and family service; and a range of specialist clinics, while all of our flight nurses are trained midwives.
Patient needs have changed over time and the RFDS has continues to innovate offering services such as alcohol and other drugs treatment, breast care and telehealth services – the modern equivalent of the pedal radio. After 90 years in the air, the RFDS has recently invested in road services to allow communities without airstrips to receive dental clinics and to ensure that patients in regional, rural and remote areas who need specialist medical care can connect with our flights. Our modern aircraft are state-of-the-art mini-intensive care units, fitted with the latest life-saving medical equipment. Special neonatal cots that fit into our road vehicles and aircraft ensure seamless care for sick children who require emergency inter-hospital transfers.
Had stockman Jimmy Darcy been injured today he may have survived with the help of the RFDS. Cold comfort for him, but testament to Flynn’s vision and the constant innovation that has enabled the Flying Doctor to stand the test of time.