Flying Doctor and Kowanyama community “In this Together”

Date published

28 May 2020

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (Queensland Section) (RFDS) and the Far North Queensland remote Indigenous community of Kowanyama have truly embraced this year’s Reconciliation Week theme “in this together”.

Since strict travel and social distancing measures were implemented earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 health crisis, RFDS and Kowanyama locals have worked together to ensure vital mental health and primary health care services continue uninterrupted.

The RFDS engaged in early discussions with local mayors, councils and Local Disaster Management Groups, to find out what different communities wanted, and tailored their health delivery models accordingly.

RFDS primary health care and mental health workers agreed to prolong their routine stays in the community and are now remaining in Kowanyama up to three weeks at a time to minimise the potential of carrying the virus from major centres, back into the community.

Previously, standard visits were three days per week.


Flying Doctor health practitioners travelling to remote communities also undergo COVID-19 testing prior to travel.

Royal Flying Doctor Service Manager of Far North Mental Health Operations, Jos Middleton said the success of the changes was a result of early collaboration with the Kowanyama community.

“When we were in the early stages of the virus and its spread throughout Australia, there was a high level of uncertainty in a lot of the remote indigenous communities the RFDS services in Cape York,” Ms Middleton said.

“We were conscious about trying to alleviate that anxiety, and while some communities did ask us to stay away for the time being, others such as Kowanyama under the guidance of former Mayor Michael Yam, wanted to discuss how we could continue to safely deliver health services for community members.

“Whether we stayed away, or whether we continued delivering services, were two very important conversations to have, and we wholly respect both points of view. Health service delivery must be built on trust, and in keeping with the theme of this year’s Reconciliation Week, we had to make these decisions together.”

Kowanyama Shire Council Mayor, Cr Robbie Sands said the agreement to have extended stays by RFDS clinicians in the town reiterated the trust built between the RFDS and community members throughout years of working together.

“What we’ve seen over the past couple of months is exactly what we’re talking about with Reconciliation Week, and that’s indigenous people and the greater population working together,” Cr Sands said.

“A lot of people in Kowanyama don’t watch TV and just didn’t have access to the information around the COVID-19 virus, so having the RFDS staying in community for longer periods meant a familiar face could answer any questions they had.

“It really helped with a lot of the fear of the unknown that was so strong in those first few weeks, and now we’re seeing even greater levels of trust and acceptance of the Flying Doctor guys. Now that they have more time to spend in town, they are being invited to even more recreational activities and even being told the good fishing spots.

“It’s been really positive for Kowanyama.”

RFDS Senior Mental Health Clinician Stephen Shelford has been delivering mental health services in Kowanyama for the past 18 months.

He said despite early fears in the community surrounding the virus, Kowanyama locals were now more at ease.

“We spent a lot of the first few weeks reassuring everyone with basic info around what was happening with the virus,” Mr Shelford said.

“A lot of the news and information we were hearing and seeing in Cairns and major centres wasn’t making its way to remote communities like Kowanyama, so we acted as a sort of conduit for information about what was happening with the virus, and how we can help prevent its transmission by following basic health advice.”