A photo of Meg O'Connell

Oh, how far we’ve flown

Date published

17 May 2023

As we celebrate Flying Doctor Day, we take a look back on just how far we have come from 95 years ago when we took off for our first flight from Cloncurry.

From Alfred Traeger’s innovation of the pedal radio in 1929, we look to where we are now with our advancements in the telehealth space.

RFDS (Queensland Section) Telehealth Lead Dr Meg O’Connell said telehealth has always been at the core of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

1929 pedal radio with a lady and children sending a morse message.

“The origins of the Royal Flying Doctor Service started in telehealth,” Dr O’Connell said.

“The national commemorative coin about RFDS shows a person on a pedal radio signalling the RFDS because it was how people contacted us in the first place.

“We will always have that remote patient mindset because that’s what founder John Flynn wanted us to do, put a ‘mantle of safety’ around the people of Australia’s remote communities.

“We are always going to have remote patients far away from us. How we connect with them, first and foremost, is through telehealth.

“That is how we care for patients, just as our founder John Flynn did, the RFDS saying is to deliver the finest care to the furthest corner; and telehealth is one of the ways we can reach the furthest corner.”

With a background in space medicine, Dr O’Connell has drawn parallels between the RFDS Telehealth services, and space medicine.

“The patients we care for through telehealth are more remote than astronauts on the International Space Station,” Dr O’Connell said.

RFDS retrieval

“Astronauts in space rely on doctors on telehealth to support them. Just like our patients. Space medicine is telehealth

“There is much space medicine can learn from RFDS telehealth and much we can learn from space medicine, so it’s very synergistic.”

While it started with a pedal-operated generator to power a radio receiver in 1929, RFDS medical officers now provide a 24-hour medical consultation service via telephone and radio transmission.

The first RFDS flight was made possible through the generous contribution of a Gift in the Will of Hugh Victor McKay.

From this one Gift, the RFDS has grown from one plane, one pilot and one doctor, to a national service with 79 aircraft, and 387,042 patient contacts through RFDS clinics, aeromedical transports and telehealth consultations.

“Rural and remote patients usually have poor access to health services, worse health outcomes, less life expectancy, and more chronic disease,” O’Connell said

“We can utilise telehealth so regional, rural and remote communities can have better access to health services, better life expectancy, better outcomes and more choice in health services.

“Some of our patients are so remote that to get to their closest clinic is a 10-hour drive, and it is really a tough drive which many of them only do twice a year.”

You can find out more about telehealth services here.

As we look to the future, the needs will continue to grow in both the services we provide and the way in which they are delivered.

Find out more about gifts in wills here