A Queensland chemist has set up a free service to fly regional patients to their far-away medical appointments.

Story John Dunn   Photos Brendan Bowers

Mark McMurtrie has become known as ‘the flying pharmacist’. A chemist in River Heads, Qld, Mark combines ownership of his ground-based business with his new venture as pilot and co-founder of Community Flights, a not-for-profit charity that transports patients free of charge from the Hervey Bay area to their medical appointments with specialists in Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. 

“Many people struggle with the costs and the pain and time of long-distance travel to visit doctors who are unavailable where they live,” Mark says. “The typical 8-hour return road trip from here to a specialist is almost unbearable for many chronic pain sufferers and some completely give up on treatment.”

In November 2021, Mark joined with his partner Melissa Lay and colleague Warren Cox to form Community Flights, with the motto ‘Closing the gap to health care access’. Melissa has worked extensively in community projects aimed at improving life and providing opportunities for vulnerable people, while Warren, an accountant, has served on committees of many not-for-profit organisations. 

“Our research showed that more than 440 patients from this Wide Bay area alone were travelling to appointments each month, mostly to see cancer, heart and brain specialists who are unavailable here,” Melissa says. “We can’t fly everyone, so there are 3 main eligibility criteria – financial hardship, need to visit specialists frequently and those on immune lowering therapy or at high risk of infection from public transport.”

“I was hearing frequently from my pharmacy customers about difficulties in getting to their out-of-town appointments,” Mark says. “Many can barely afford the cost of travel, some can’t. Often accommodation is necessary, which is an extra financial burden. This travel compounds their emotional stress. I knew I could do something about this – I could fly these people there and back, mostly in one day.” 

This story excerpt is from Issue #147

Outback Magazine: February/March 2023