When isolation is second nature

  • Flying into King Island. Photo: Lana Best

Flying into King Island. Photo: Lana Best 

Royal Flying Doctor Service Tasmania
Julie Shelton, Media, Marketing & Fundraising Officer

King island’s remoteness is also its most alluring feature.  The abundance of clean air and water underpins the island’s reputation for producing excellent cheese, seafood, bottled rainwater, kelp, and beef.

Located in Bass Strait, 80 kilometres off the northwestern coast of Tasmania, this roughly oval-shaped island is about 64 kilometres long and 24 kilometres wide at its widest point.  The population of around 1,600 has a median age of 47 (9 years above Australia’s median of 38), with more than 22% aged 65 years and over.

Unlike other communities serviced by the Royal Flying Doctor Service on ‘the mainland’, there are no big blue skies and red dirt here: isolation comes in the form of big seas and wild weather.  Residents depend on regular ferry and plane transport, including an aeromedical service, and visiting clinics, such as the RFDS dental outreach service.

In fact, RFDS has been servicing remote and rural communities in Tasmania since the 1960s.  In a few months – on the 12th of September – we celebrate our 60th anniversary!

The commencement of the ‘Royal Flying Doctor Service Tasmanian Section’ was announced in a local paper to great relief:

“There will now be a greater sense of security among the residents of the island and other remote places.”

“Though Tasmanian distances are comparatively short there are communities in the islands and elsewhere just a lonely and isolated as those of Central Australia because communications other than by air are slow and difficult.”

The aircraft were far removed from the modern twin-engine, pressurised and medically-equipped aircraft supplied by the RFDS to Ambulance Tasmania which tasks and staffs Tasmania’s plane.

They were single engine, carried no radio or radio navigation equipment and most had neither instrument nor landing lights.  Flying often at night and in poor weather, the pilots made many daring flights, navigating at night by lighthouses around the coast and landing by the light from car headlights.

From these bold beginnings, RFDS services now cover many areas of the state and include ground-based primary health care such as youth and adult mental health services, and post-cardio-pulmonary event exercise classes.  More than 30 field staff work from centres in 18 of the 29 local government areas.  It also delivers education services and provides scholarships for medical students to experience service delivery in remote NSW and Western Australia.

Last year RFDS Tasmania partnered with Oral Health Services Tasmania (OHST) to ensure there is once again a dentist visiting King Island regularly to provide dental services to adults, complementing the OHST services for children.

“Poor oral health is one of the most common health problems affecting remote and rural Tasmanians and it’s important to us that everyone, even if they’re living on an island, is provided with the best possible dental care,” explains RFDS Tasmania CEO, John Kirwan.

The COVID-19 crisis has underscored the challenges faced by islanders around the country, and none more so than on King Island.  Plane and ferry services were reduced and RFDS Tasmania was forced to pause its clinics due to dental service restrictions.  However, with approval from Biosecurity Tasmania for essential services to land on King Island, and with the backing of King Island Council, the clinics resumed at the end of April, adhering to the Australian Dental Association guidelines, triaging patients according to urgency.

While other Tasmanians may have struggled with the isolation imposed by COVID restrictions, residents of King Island continue to demonstrate their resilience, knowing that history shows that patience has its rewards.

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