Start of content
Peak hour at Jigalong airstrip
30 May 2018

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of visiting Martu country.

By Kathy Rainbird

Martu country is in the Little Sandy Desert in the East Pilbara region of Western Australia.

It’s remote. Very remote. The communities here are living rough and the healthcare teams who support them have to deal with a vast array of serious issues and health conditions, from dog bites to domestic violence, babies with temperatures and elderly people with septicaemia. I’m here to educate and train the Aboriginal Medical Service teams about the benefits of My Health Record.

I sit in the clinic, feeling slightly helpless as more and more people come through the door to see the doctor who I shared the plane with in over the desert this morning. I wait to have the chance to talk to the clinic staff, in between them sorting out eye drops, mail deliveries, checking over those patients who are less crook, taking phone calls, welcoming people as they come through the door, making sure people don’t walk back out the door before they get the chance to see the doctor.

I’ve been supporting the local Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service (PAMS) since June 2017, when I was first introduced to their now CEO, Robby Chibawe. So I was very pleased in March 2018 when I heard from their clinical manager, Cynthia, that they now had their HPI-O number and NASH certificate to connect to the My Health Record system. I joined their regular all-staff meeting by phone to give them an introduction to My Health Record. Then Robby and Cynthia invited me to come in person, on their doctor’s charter flight. It’s an invitation I can’t refuse. I am honoured to accept.

I arrive in Newman, a mining town in the Pilbara, and meet Katie, PAMS’ clinical quality improvement officer. We talk about the challenges of connecting to their remote clinics. The Newman and Jigalong clinics have an online version of their clinical software, but the clinics further away use an offline version that is synced via a side-loader to their server in Jigalong overnight. We agree that the best solution at this stage will be for the remote clinics to access My Health Record via the Provider Portal.

We put this theory to the test on the online version in Newman. The green My Health Record appears; a good sign. But when we click on it to try to view a record, an error appears. Luckily, I know our Agency Help Centre team are on hand and likely to be able to provide a solution. We give them a call and I leave Katie on the path to getting it resolved while I head to Jigalong via 4WD.

After two and a half hours of bumpy, red-dirt roads, I arrive at the clinic in Jigalong. This remote aboriginal community was made famous as the place where three aboriginal girls walked the Rabbit Proof Fence in the 1930s. At the clinic, I squeeze into a consultation room with the team of three remote nurses, an aboriginal health worker and the clinic receptionist. We try opening My Health Record, and it works! Katie has resolved the error. Then I go into training mode and take them through access and viewing, uploading and registering patients for My Health Record. The nurses can immediately see the potential benefits for their patients.

Lance, the eldest and most experienced of the team, says “This is going to save us so much time chasing information. It sometimes takes us three weeks to track down a discharge summary.” Christine, their clinic receptionist, is more circumspect. She points out that there are many people in this community who aren’t known to Medicare and were born “in the bush.” This is really one of those hard-to-reach groups.

There has been an emergency overnight and the Royal Flying Doctors (RFDS) are on their way. The doctor’s charter plane is also scheduled to arrive. The doctor’s plane arrives first, but cannot land immediately because of wild horses on the airstrip. A low buzz over the airstrip sees them off – a practised manoeuvre in these parts. The doctor’s plane lands first, with the RFDS flight following close behind.

Two planes on the airstrip at once is an unusual sight around here. The RFDS plane is, however, unfortunately a regular visitor to Jigalong, with Christine informing me they’ve had over 50 emergency retrievals in the past year – that’s one every week.

The flight over the desert is beautiful. It is a truly awesome landscape. I reflect on the songlines of the seven sisters and the amazing cultural history infused in this place.

My training is well received. I spend the evenings chatting with the nurses and visiting doctor about their experiences, how things work out here and showing them the demonstration version of My Health Record in their clinical software.

I am confident they will see real benefits from My Health Record before long, especially now the expansion program is underway.

Visiting Martu country has been an amazing experience and one that will stay with me for a very long time.

My thanks to PAMS for inviting me to visit and helping organise my journey. I also wish to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land which I was honoured to visit, Martu Country, and the elders past, present and future.

Kathy Rainbird is Digital Health Programme Manager – Education, Learning and Development – Clinical and Consumer Engagement and Clinical Governance Division at the Australian Digital Health Agency.