Restore full flying doctor service please!


THE announcement by Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai that the Ministry of Finance will announce the name of the successful contractor to operate the flying doctor service (FDS) soon is indeed good news for countless Sarawakians living in the remote regions of the state.

For many Sarawakians living in the difficult terrain in the far-flung interior of the Land of the Hornbill, a helicopter is often the only fast and easy way to reach urban centres where general hospitals are located. In moments of medical emergency, the helicopter service often makes the difference between life and death for the rural patients.

The projected cost of between RM60 million and RM70 million would be well spent. Providing basic health care and medical services to the most helpless of citizens is indeed one of the most important duties of any responsible government.

A well-placed source said six companies were bidding for the contract, namely Hornbill Skyways Sdn Bhd, Sabah Air Sdn Bhd, Weststar Aviation Sdn Bhd, SAR Helicopters Sdn Bhd, Systematic Aviation Services Sdn Bhd, and Layang Layang Aerospace Sdn Bhd.

In choosing the contractor, it is hoped that the Finance Ministry will screen the companies tendering for the project carefully to make sure that the right candidate has all the financial, management, and material resources to fulfil the contract agreement.

The company must have the right number of the right type of helicopters to provide structured and properly scheduled flight service for the medical personnel to visit their ulu destinations throughout Sarawak. Any disruption of service due to the incompetence of the contractor will cause endless misery for rural Sarawakians.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) director of strategy Tian Chua has already criticised the last FDS contractor SAR Helicopters for failing to live up to the terms and conditions of their contract agreement. Though SAR Helicopter has claimed that their failure was due to factors outside their control, it does not negate the fact that many rural patients who need quick access to medical facilities have been denied this all-important air-lift service. The FDS, together with the Emergency Medivac Services EMS, form the backbone of Sarawak rural health care.

According to the Sarawak Health Department website, they do have the noble intention to give medical care coverage to as many Sarawak rural dwellers as possible:

“The flying doctor service was introduced in 1973 to provide basic health services to people living in remote areas. The service operates three helicopters that are rented under a contract with a private company.

“The helicopters are based in Kuching, Sibu and Miri and together, they cover 141 locations in the remote rural parts of the State with attention given to about 70,000 outpatients, children and antenatal mothers every year.

“The flying doctor team comprises a medical officer, a medical assistant and two community nurses who visit the locations once a month or once in two months. The flying doctor service also provides medical emergency evacuation (Medivac) of seriously ill patients from the locality to the nearest appropriate hospital, from rural health clinics to hospital and from hospital to hospital. It also served as cargo run to rural health clinics in delivering medical items and drugs. During disease outbreak in the state, the flying doctor service helicopters are also used for quick transportation of field investigation and control medical and health teams.”

Once again, the fine goals and complete plans for taking care of Sarawak’s rural citizens outlined above would be for naught if there are no reliable private companies to operate the helicopters to fly all those medical personnel to the remotest corners of our vast landscape.

To avoid the overlapping of jurisdiction, and to allow the Sarawak Health Department to have direct control over the FDS, the vote for the allocation for the helicopter tender should be transferred from the Finance Ministry to the Health Ministry.

Ever since the issue surfaced recently, Sarawakians have been watching the unfolding events in the days and months ahead. Justice for rural Sarawakians demands that the regular and satisfactory helicopter service be restored as soon as possible.