The Heart of Australia on New Zealand Trucking
In an Australian first, an innovative Queensland cardiologist has taken his practice on the road in a purpose-built rig to deliver specialist heart care services to rural and regional areas of Australia. New Zealand Trucking’s Howard Shanks travelled to Dalby, Queensland, to observe this unique truck in ‘operation’.
Every second Thursday a little before dawn in the sleeping town of Dalby, roughly two and half hours west of Brisbane, Queensland, the silver K200 Kenworth hauling the Heart of Australia’s purpose built trailer rolls into town and sets up for the day.
The ‘Heart of Australia’ brings specialist medical services to rural communities on a 25-metre long custom-designed clinicon-wheels, hauled by a Kenworth K200 prime mover, donated by PACCAR Australia. In terms of the area it will cover, this promises to be the most ambitious service of its kind anywhere in the world.
The fully air-conditioned, purpose-built, self-sufficient trailer provides two private clinic rooms, a testing room, a reception area for patients and is wheelchair accessible.
It is the brainchild of Dr Rolf Gomes, who spent more than $1 million developing the mobile medical clinic, which he dubbed ‘Heart of Australia’.
“The idea came to me over five years ago when I was practising out in some of the regional areas as a junior doctor and registrar,” explains Dr Gomes. “I experienced at that time how difficult it was for patients out in these areas to access the services that patients in the city take for granted.”
Dr Gomes says cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in Australia, with one person dying every 12 minutes. And people living in remote areas have a far higher rate of hospitalisation and death resulting from the disease.
“The key problem is that so many of these communities do not have specialist cardiac health services,” he says. “That’s the reason I founded Heart of Australia – to give people in the bush access to the same services the rest of Australia takes for granted.”
In its first year, the mobile unit aims to travel more than 72,000km, covering an area of over 450,000sq km. This will allow people from remote areas to access specialist services they would usually have to travel sometimes thousands of kilometres to reach.
Although Heart of Australia was launched in Toowoomba, the nearby town of Dalby will act as a hub for the south-west Queensland phase of the programme. The mobile clinic aims to service at least five rural and remote towns plus surrounding communities in its first year of operation.
The project will begin by visiting communities in the Surat Basin, including Roma, Charleville, Dalby, Goondiwindi and St George. The planned second phase will focus on the central west, visiting towns such as Barcaldine, Winton, Hughenden and Moranbah.
The mobile unit will stop in each town for two days and return for another two days each fortnight.
“The fortnightly visits will enable us to examine all the patients in a town referred by local general practitioners, and follow up on the progress of patients seen on earlier visits,” says Dr Gomes. “In addition, we will bring specialists along on different visits.
“On our first visit, for example, we would have a cardiologist. On our second visit to the town, we may have a cardiologist and an endocrinologist. On visits, when a particular specialist isn’t onboard, they can still conduct follow-up consultations via teleconferencing and telemedicine,” he explains.
Onboard at all times will be a nurse, a consulting cardiologist and a cardiac scientist/sonographer. Other specialists and support staff will fly into towns and join the mobile clinic as required.
Heart of Australia has attracted widespread support from the Australian Medical Association Queensland, the Medicare local health bodies which co-ordinate regional services and also a growing number of local GPs and councils.
In addition, Dr. Gomes has gained the backing of Queensland’s largest private cardiology group, the Queensland Cardiovascular Group, which will assist with the provision of the required cardiologists.
In addition, the programme has received funding from the Australian and Queensland governments and support from various corporate sponsors including Arrow Energy, St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital, Bayer Australia and IOR Petroleum.
All medical tests and consultations will be conducted in Heart of Australia’s self-contained medical clinic trailer, which was custom built by Varley Group in Brisbane. It comprises a variety of air-conditioned rooms, including a reception and waiting area, several consultation rooms, a testing room and an amenities area. A wheelchair access lift has also been fitted.
All non-invasive tests available to patients in Brisbane will be available onboard the mobile clinic. This includes everything from an echocardiogram, cardiac ultrasound and cardiac stress testing to heart monitoring, blood pressure monitoring and sleep apnoea testing.
“Once a patient has been referred by their GP, they will be seen by a specialist who will run a series of non-invasive tests,” says Dr Gomes. “The results will be available immediately or usually within a few hours. This enables the specialist to make a diagnosis, have a follow-up consultation with the patient and start treatment generally within 24 hours. There’s not the delay you have when you see a specialist in the city, where the whole process could take weeks or even months, from the initial appointment to tests scheduled at a later time and then the follow-up usually weeks after that. With Heart of Australia, the entire procedure occurs virtually on the spot in the patient’s home town,” he says.
“When I began working on this programme, one of the aims was to ultimately offer a range of specialist services beyond cardiology. We have achieved this even before the programme has begun. We will be offering respiratory physicians as well as an immunologist and endocrinologist. That’s just the start. Before long we’ll be offering other medical disciplines,” says Dr Gomes.
“Heart of Australia was my vision, but it’s the result of a joint effort by a large number of individuals and organisations, including generous sponsors, like PACCAR Australia,” he says.
PACCAR at the heart of things
PACCAR Australia was the first to back the programme with the provision of a Kenworth prime mover for 12 months, covering the first phase. In addition, Brown and Hurley, PACCAR’s longest-serving and largest dealer group, will provide truck service and maintenance throughout this time.
“We’re proud to have PACCAR as our major transport partner – they have been critical to the success of this program,” says Dr Gomes.
“Heart of Australia is a great cause, but it will only be successful if people understand the issues and appreciate what’s needed,” Dr. Gomes explains. “PACCAR Australia understood immediately. When you’re behind the iconic Kenworth name, Australia’s leading truck brand, you know full well the vast distances between the city and the bush, and just how remote so many of these communities are. PACCAR recognised the programme’s potential in terms of improving health outcomes in those areas, and they have remained committed ever since,” he added.
PACCAR Australia’s Managing Director, Mike Dozier, said he was excited about supporting such a worthy and much-needed service.
“We are delighted to be contributing to this unique initiative, and we’re looking forward to the possibility of a longer-term relationship. Heart of Australia is an important medical resource, which will improve life in many communities, and, no doubt, save lives as well. You cannot put a price on this service, and that’s why we got involved,” he says.
“The mobile health clinic will be visiting a number of rural mining and agricultural areas which rely heavily on road-based transport,” says Dozier.