The flying doctor concept has been part of rural Australia’s psyche for 90 years but a flying skin cancer doctor is a relatively new version of the theme.
Brisbane physician, Alan Jones, is the founder of a network of doctors that has been undertaking skin checks and sun safety education for groups around the country, but now he’s taken that a step further.
Recognising both the lack of skin cancer diagnosis specialisation in doctors servicing rural areas and the difficulties patients faced in travelling for treatment once they had been diagnosed, Dr Jones has begun flying to western Queensland, offering a “start to finish” diagnostic and treatment service.
His statistics tell a story of need – a quarter of the 133 people examined in Blackall and Tambo in a week were treated for some form of skin cancer, including one person diagnosed with a melanoma.
Pathology confirmed 40 skin cancers, 80 per cent of them basal cell carcinomas and 20 pc squamous cell carcinomas.
“This is a very high rate, a quarter of the people of a town having skin cancer or the suspicion of cancer, but these numbers would not be that unusual in a high risk, rural, northern latitude, farming community with somewhat limited access to doctors experienced in skin cancer medicine,” Dr Jones said.
As well as possibly being life-saving, the fledgling service is saving patients a lot of money, thanks to no longer needing referrals to another practitioner in a larger regional centre or city.
“It circumvents the challenge of getting healthcare when you need it,” is how Dr Jones explained it.
Emerging from his own thorough exploration under Dr Jones’ magnifying glass, Blackall-Tambo Regional Council mayor, Andrew Martin endorsed the concept, saying contact was initially made when a service was offered for staff, which was highly patronised.
“Contact was initially made when a service was offered for our staff, which was highly patronised,” he said.
“There were lots of sunspots that needed further investigation.
“We then felt this was another thing we could offer the public through our multi-purpose health centre, thanks to funding from the Primary Healthcare Network.
“I believe Alan has been run off his feet – totally booked out in both centres.”
Blackall and Tambo are the nucleus of the rural and remote focus of the Flying Skin Cancer Doctor business at present but Dr Jones is keen to expand, saying he’d prefer to focus on parts of Australia that no-one else serviced.
Far from stepping on the toes of resident GPs, Dr Jones said they were referring patients to himself in large numbers.
“Places like Blackall have a GP population that’s not skilled in this aspect so people tend to save skin checks for a trip away,” he said. “I have a GP background and 12 or 13 doctors working for me so I’m sensitive to their needs.”
Dr Jones recommended that people check themselves every three months and book into their GP immediately if signs of a melanoma – typically a dark spot on clear skin – appeared.
“Ninety-eight per cent of skin cancer is preventable,” he said. “Parents are doing a lot better with our young people now, particularly as sunburn in children is a precursor for cancer.”