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Ageing population may ground 'Flying Doc'

By Malcolm King - posted Wednesday, 2 November 2011

This article is about how changing demographics will affect one particular NGO – the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) in South Australia.

They are typical of a major NGO performing exceptionally important work. Unfortunately the 'Flying Doctor' in SA is about to go the way of Vegemite, Arnott's Biscuits, Aeroplane jelly, Edgells, Jaffas and Minties, to name just a few which are now in the hands of foreign companies or defunct.

Just as these companies failed to see market changes, the RFDS too is purblind as demographic change removes its greatest sponsors – the pre-War generation.


About 60 percent of the RFDS in Adelaide is funded by the Commonwealth Government. The other 40 percent comes from donations and bequests. The lion's share comes from the latter and they are almost to a man and woman (mainly women) people in their late 70s and 80s.

These are the children and youth of the Depression and World War Two. Most are certainly old enough to remember the Japanese invasion and full employment in the 1950s and 60s (compared to the late 70s and 80s). I call them the 'tough nuts'. We haven't seen a generation made of their mettle and we probably won't again.

As children in the 1930s some may have met the founder of the RFDS, the Reverend john Flynn, as he travelled from state to state talking about the RFDS. They would have learned about the heroic and life saving work of the 'Flying Doctor' and nurses. As they grew older, they heartily and readily gave money and listed the RFDS as a beneficiary in their wills.

Now the 'tough nuts' are coming to the end of their lives and without sounding too mercenary, the RFDS can soon expect small shortfalls in non-government revenue increasing over the next 20 years which will wipe out almost all of their non-recurrent funding.

The RFDS in Adelaide is publicity adverse. They did not want stories about them in the media nor did they want their staff profiled. They did not want stories written on Aboriginal suicide or mental health or indeed, anything to do with the patients they helped and even sometimes rescued.

They are a private organisation that prefers to let their deeds go unheralded. Too often people like me in the media barge in with plans to garner monies from new sources or to write stories on staff and patients. There is a place for privacy and healthcare is a sensitive issue.


Unfortunately this sort of laconic reticence, while admirable in Chips Rafferty, is a death sentence for the RFDS.

The RFDS nationally claims that they provide care to 250,000 Australians each year. Two thirds of these are inter-hospital transfers of the elderly. You don't need to employ 160 staff in Adelaide and 977 nationally to do that. The RFDS has become a de facto aged care medical transport service.

New aeromedical providers have come on to the scene that offers service just as competitively as the 'Flying Doctor' and they are not supported by the Commonwealth Government. They are very good at winning state government tenders too – recently the SA/NT branch of the RFDS failed to win a $25 million tender to provide aeromedical service to the Top End. It went to Careflight.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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