340 million reasons to support the RFDS

WHAT'S it cost to keep the Royal Flying Doctor Service in operation?

Well, for Queensland, this year there is $100million in the budget.

Those $100million cumulate from state and federal government funding, several big-ticket corporate sponsors and individual donations to keep the vital medical service up and flying.

The national operation needs about $340 million annually.

To help the RFDS celebrate it's 90th year of operation, Rural Weekly has launched a campaign to highlight the unsung heroes who bring the service to life.

In previous weeks we have spoken to a flight nurse and chatted to a retiree who was rescued from a remote Gulf of Carpentaria island.

This week, RFDS Queensland chief executive officer Nino DiMarco is in the hot seat.

He is approaching his 12th year working with the RFDS, and, although he was on board with the charity for the 80th and 85th anniversaries, he said there was a special buzz around the office for reaching the 90-year milestone.

"It feels very special," he said.

"There are not a lot of organisations that can say they have been around for 90 years."

While Mr DiMarco has seen vast changes in the medical field and advancements in aeronautical technology over his years of service, he said the core goal of the RFDS has never changed course.

"If you look to the vision that John Flynn had way back in 1928 during the first flight, and look at what we do today, the service John Flynn envisioned is still very much alive," he said.


RFDS Founder Reverend John Flynn
RFDS Founder Reverend John Flynn. Contributed

John Flynn was an outback minister working remotely in the early 1900s when he started the campaign for an aerial medical service - the dream became a reality when the first flight, piloted by Arthur Affleck, took off from Cloncurry on May 17, 1928 (see full timeline in breakout).

Today, the RFDS in Queensland does much more than the emergency medical rescues it has become famous for.

The charity provides a 24-7 telehealth service, has more than 1300 medical chests scattered throughout the state and provides allied health professionals for outreach services in rural and remote communities.

"For the last five years we have been running a dental health program, so that's a dental van that travels to areas where there are no practising dentists," he said.

"As well as that we run a whole range of mental health programs. Out at Longreach we have a team that delivers mental health services and counselling to the surrounding areas.

"We also deliver child and maternal health, we are heavily involved in delivering health to indigenous communities up in the Cape and the lower gulf area."

After that the list went on and on.

"So through all of these programs, with various funded arrangements, we see more than 95,000 people in a year," Mr DiMarco said.

It's a mammoth operation, that he was quick to note came with a multi-million-dollar price tag.

"Our budget on an annual basis is close to $100million," he said.

"Almost half of that comes from the Queensland Government, through Queensland Health.

"Then we have a whole range of programs that are delivered through the Commonwealth Government and the Commonwealth Department of Health that deliver what we call our primary care programs, that's our clinic programs, our mental health programs, our indigenous health programs, our immunisations and our medical chest programs."


National RFDS facts.
National RFDS facts. Andrea Davy

As for the balance, which is about $13million, that comes from RFDS's fundraising efforts. While Mr DiMarco talked about their corporate sponsors, including Ergon Energy, Woolworths and the Brisbane Airport, as being vital, he spoke about general individual donors with just as much gusto.

Community groups holding their own events and money bequested in wills was a "major contribution", he said.

"Of the donors, we have a significant amount that are what we call regular givers," he said.

"So on a regular basis, be that monthly, quarterly or annually, they have a regular giving program or contribution.

"So of all of that government, corporate and community (funds) we put together the budget to run the service."

Reaching the needed $100million can be a daunting task.

"It's always a challenge," Mr DiMarco said.

"It's always a challenge in trying to encourage governments at state and federal level to provide the funding we need.

"Then, it's always a challenge to fill the gap with our own fundraising efforts.

"What amazes me is how we continue to get the support that we do, even during tough times."


Quote from the Queen on the RFDS.
Quote from the Queen on the RFDS. Contributed

Looking ahead, Mr DiMarco envisions the role of the RFDS to expand. Queensland is Australia's most decentralised state, and with the country's ageing population set to grow he feels the bush will need more medical services.

"The other important area where we feel we will continue to play a significant role is that many of the communities are struggling to hold onto their local GP," he said.

"There are a couple things that are happening there... the compliance burden, if you like, on a GP trying to work in a small country town is making it harder and harder for them to run a viable practice.

"On top of that, it continues to be a significant challenge to attract GPs into the bush."

For a community to survive, they needed health services, he said.

"If you lose your GP, or are have trouble attracting them, then communities start to die.

"It's interesting that way back in the 1950s the then-prime minster Sr Robert Menzies said the RFDS was the single greatest contribution to effective settlement to our far distant country. And that is still critical. Our role is to continue to provide these services: ultimately if we do, communities prosper, and if we don't they struggle."


RFDS Founder Reverend John Flynn
The early days of the RFDS. Contributed


-1880 John Flynn was born at Moliagul, central Victoria.

-1903 John joined the ministry and studied theology at Ormond College, at the University of Melbourne.

-1907 He commenced a four-year course in divinity at Melbourne University, graduating in 1910 and was ordained as a Minister of the Presbyterian Church in 1911.

- 1911 Flynn arrived at the tiny Smith of Dunesk Mission at Beltana, over 500 kms north of Adelaide, South Australia. Here, he saw first hand the rigours of outback life and learnt there was no medical care available to inland residents and travellers

-1917, Flynn received an inspirational letter from Lieutenant Clifford Peel, a Victorian medical student with an interest in aviation. The young airman and war hero suggested the use of aviation to bring medical help to the Outback. Shot down in France, he died at just 24 years of age and never knew that his letter became a blueprint for the creation of the Flying Doctor Service.

-For the next ten years, Flynn campaigned for an aerial medical service.

- 1927 QANTAS and the Aerial Medical Service signed an agreement to operate an aerial ambulance from Cloncurry, Queensland.

- 1928 the first pilot took off from Cloncurry, he was flying a single engine, timber and fabric bi-plane named 'Victory' (leased by QANTAS for two shillings per mile flown). He had with him the very first of our flying doctors, Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch.

- 1929 Alfred Traeger invented the pedal-operated generator that could power a radio receiver. By 1929 people living in isolation were able to call on the Flying Doctor to assist them in an emergency.

- In its inaugural year, the Aerial Medical Service (which changed its name to the Flying Doctor Service in 1942 and the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1955) flew 50 flights to 26 destinations and treated 225 patients.

- 1951 the School of the Air was established in Alice Springs using the Flying Doctor Service network.

Source: www.flyingdoctor.org.au


Fast facts on the RFDS
Fast facts on the RFDS Andrea Davy