AMREF's Flying Doctors

Photographs by Marco Di Lauro

Text by Paola Ferrara/AMREF

Run-down health care facilities, the poor transportation network, insufficient staff levels, and lack of supplies and equipment all contribute to inadequate access to and utilization of quality health care for rural communities. These factors drive the great demand for outreach services. Rural health care facilities face a high turnover of doctors and other qualified health workers due to difficult conditions that make long-term commitment and involvement unattractive to health care specialists.

The African Medical Research Foundation's (AMREF) Outreach Programme serves more than 150 rural hospitals in Eastern Africa. Rural hospitals are visited by the Outreach Programme two to six times a year in order to provide specialized health care services to under-served communities. The Outreach programme uses AMREF's light aircraft on planned, regular flights. Hospitals located in outlying areas are placed on "circuits" which are grouped according to five tertiary hospitals. Specialists are drawn from AMREF and from the university teaching hospitals in Eastern Africa. The twenty three types of specialists are selected based on the requests from the rural hospitals. Thanks to AMREF's Outreach Programme, more than 20,000 patients are seen and more than 3,000 operations are carried out each year.

Flying for health in Africa.

There is already plenty of activity by nine a.m. at AMREF's hangar at Wilson Airport. An engineer who has been with AMREF for 33 years and his assistants are working to get a plane back in the air, while others prepare the planes that will be involved in the Outreach Programme tomorrow. OUTREACH: this is the heart of AMREF's work. It is the flagship programme in the long history of this organization, born in Africa to provide health in Africa. The Flying Doctors' mission has been on-going, uninterrupted for 54 years now, ever since Michael Wood, a British doctor on a mission in Kenya in 1957 noted that "In Africa, if we wait for the patient to come to a hospital, the patient dies. Instead, we must bring the doctor to the patient." Since then little has changed. Eighty percent of the doctors in the country serve the twenty percent of the population that is in or close to urban areas. This means that the roads, or the skies more precisely, that have yet to be travelled by the Flying Doctors are truly endless.

The Flying Doctors consist of over 300 professionals who offer their services to AMREF's cause: to bring health care to those who do not have it and who cannot reach it. The Flying Doctors carry out short missions - one week, two or three times a year - in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, to remote areas that lack health care facilities and which can often only be reached by air due to roads that are either impassable or missing altogether. In this way, these medical specialists are able to provide health care by getting as close as possible to remote East African populations.

Preparations are under way at AMREF's operational offices at Wilson Airport. The bags are packed with drugs and other medical supplies needed in the coming days. Each bag has its own destination - Wajir, Mandera, Moyale, Marsabit - and contains drugs and other materials for operating rooms.