On King Island, life in a quiet paradise comes with significant trade-offs

On King Island, life in a quiet paradise comes with significant trade-offs
  • PublishedSeptember 16, 2023

Longtime King Island resident Robert Jordan recently returned from Melbourne, but there was nothing fun about his time on the mainland. Afterall, trips to the dentist are rarely enjoyable.   

But in a few weeks, the veteran volunteer ambulance officer will fly out from King Island again for more dental work, this time to get some moulds made.

A few weeks after that, he will fly once more to get new teeth fitted. 

“There’s a dentist that comes over [to King Island] once every six weeks or something, but they can’t do any of that stuff,” Mr Jordan said.

Life on King Island is full of trade-offs, especially when it comes to health care. 

A sheep roams freely on a neighbourhood street, crossing the road on a tree lined street
A sheep roams freely on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

A quiet sort of windswept paradise off the north-west tip of Tasmania, locals treasure the quality of life — the freedom, access to nature and sense of community — the small island affords. 

It proved a good place to ride out a pandemic. King Island did not record a COVID-19 case among its population of fewer than 2,000 people until January 2022. 

The flip side, as local doctor Ann Buchan puts it, is a lack of access “to the sorts of medical services that most Australians take for granted”.

Older woman with white hair and glasses stands side on smiling wearing bright patterned medical scrubs in doctors office
Dr Ann Buchan has been working on King Island since just before the pandemic started in 2020.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Take physiotherapy, for instance. The wait to see a physio on the island can stretch to more than 12 months.

It is an ageing population, where many locals work on farms and play football and netball on weekends.

Dr Buchan believes physio is “really important for the management of a lot of chronic illnesses”.

A monument with a Christian cross on a pole sits on a cliff edge overlooking a large open cut mine with ocean in background
Work recently recommenced at a Tungsten mine on King Island after three decades laying dormant.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“If you’ve got a soft tissue injury, a post-operative injury, or even a post-infective injury with a nasty chest infection, having access to a good physio can shorten the period of time that you’re out of action,” she said.

“It can minimise the chance of re-injury and minimise the amount of medication you have to take.

“The waiting list, quite frankly, would be completely unacceptable for somebody living on mainland Tasmania or mainland Australia. They just wouldn’t believe how long you have to wait.”

Locals offer simple solution

Once a fortnight, typically on a Monday, a physio flies into King Island from northern Tasmania. 

Bass Strait weather permitting, they arrive in the morning and fly out again in the afternoon, making it back to the airport an hour before departure.

Grass in foreground with a lighthouse in background against a cloudy blue sky and ocean just visible on horizon.
King Island can frequently be buffeted by strong winds.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“They work very hard, don’t get me wrong. But there’s a limited number of patients they can see,” Dr Buchan said.

“If the planes aren’t flying properly, or if there’s difficulty with the weather, they don’t come in.” 

A seemingly simple solution was proffered by locals, which was to fund the visiting physio to stay the night.

“You would see so many more patients,” Dr Buchan said.

A petition was circulated by Tasmanian Independent Legislative Council member Ruth Forrest, calling on the government to consider the idea and improve access to physiotherapy on the island. 

It attracted 145 signatures, but Ms Forrest said it had so far received a muted response from government. 

“The people of King Island are a bit flummoxed by it as to why they wouldn’t take up a pretty simple suggestion,” she said. 

“The last thing a person needs is to get on a small plane to have a physio appointment after their hip replacement, when that can be delivered in their own town.”

Cattle roam on a lush green rolling pasture with ocean in the background, two are staring close to the camera
Agriculture is a key industry on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Whether it is funding a night’s stay, or supporting a public-private hybrid physio model on the island, Ms Forrest said King Island’s unique setting required a more creative approach. 

“This is the problem with many of our systems in government. [They say] ‘This is the way we do it’, and it doesn’t allow for nuanced solutions,” she said.

“Where there may be solutions that actually won’t cost the government any more, it just means changing a structure, then surely we can look at that.”

A state Department of Health spokesperson said there was a “significant national shortage of physiotherapists, including in regional areas in Tasmania,” but that the average wait time for patients to see a physio was about four and a half months.

A small pastel building illuminated by a sunset, with Marine Board of King Island written across the top
Many King Islanders work in agricultural, kelp and seafood industries.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

At a time when Tasmania’s strained healthcare system has seen hospitals plead for people to stay away for anything other than emergencies, the concerns of King Islanders may seem insignificant, almost trivial 

But Ms Forrest, whose electorate of Murchison covers Tasmania’s west and north west coast, including King Island, said locals should not be criticised for seeking better care. 

Middle aged woman sits in parliament listening to debate
A petition circulated by Upper House Independent Ruth Forrest attracted 145 signatures.(ABC News: Luke Bowden )

“Woe betide anyone who says, ‘Well you choose to live there,’ because people on King Island contribute enormously to our economy,” she said. 

“I think it’s not unreasonable for any resident of Tasmania to expect an equal level of healthcare, wherever they live in the state.”

With ‘second class’ arrangements

If you find yourself in an emergency on King island, it will likely be a small but dedicated team of volunteer ambulance officers who will quickly find and care for you. 

They do not have much of a home base. They do not even have a toilet. 

Older man with glasses sits at a table, looking across over laptop and walky talkies
Robert Jordan has worked as a volunteer ambulance officer on King Island for 33 years.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“We’ve only got a basic garage and storage facility at the moment. It’s a bit awkward that you can’t go and have a quick wee if you need to,” lead coordinator Robert Jordan said.

“When you’re suddenly called out to go on a job, you have to learn to hold it a lot longer than what’s probably normal.”

He added that they did not have anywhere to “debrief” after a traumatic call-out. 

“It’s a bit of a drag on people,” Mr Jordan said.

Man with brown hair standing wearing suit beneath two large Australian flags and a picture of the Queen on a wall
King Island Mayor Marcus Blackie says current arrangements for the volunteers are “ad hoc”.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

King Island Council Mayor Marcus Blackie is uncomfortable with the situation. 

“They are ad hoc arrangements at the moment, and they are maybe being considered second-class citizens by their other emergency services peers and brothers,” he said. 

“That’s not good enough.”

Two men and two women sit around a white table in a fluorescent lit room, wearing ambulance volunteer uniforms in front of a TV
A meeting of volunteer ambulance officers on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

PTSD in paradise

On a cold Tuesday night, Robert Jordan and three other volunteers, of varying age and experience, pore over training material in the local community house, which they have been allowed to use for the night.

With another veteran volunteer ambulance officer recently retiring after 42 years, Mr Jordan is now the longest serving volunteer, with a mere 33 years of service.

In a place like King Island, that means 33 years of call-outs to incidents involving people you know, people who are part of your community, even your friends. 

“It might be a bit of a shock to roll up and see who’s there, because only when we go to a scene do we find out who’s involved and get the bigger picture,” Mr Jordan said. 

“We’ve encountered all sorts of things. We’ve helped the police pick up body parts off the road. We’ve been to quite a few suicides over the years. That does affect people.”

For a team proudly determined to serve its community, this has taken its toll.

“There have been people experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) because they’ve known the person and because of the situation — gunshots and all sorts of different things,” he said.

“It’s a natural reaction to a really bad scene.”

Older man wearing glasses with white hair and bear stands outside wearing vest with green paddock and moody skies behind him
Robert Jordan said some volunteer ambulance officers have experienced PTSD.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

It has led to calls to fund a community paramedic on the island, somebody not so personally enmeshed in the community fabric, and who would also be able to perform a wider variety of services.

“I think bringing in a paramedic that has a slight degree of distance would, emotionally, be a really good support for all of us,” Dr Buchan said. 

Mr Jordan said a paramedic could also provide vital medical assistance for patients.

“They can give them drugs and start off fluid resuscitation at the scene, whereas we can only package the patient and take them up to the hospital,” he said.

Tasmanian Health Minister Guy Barnett said his department would “continue to listen to views and suggestions of what is needed to keep delivering continuous improvement in healthcare services.”

A faded car sticker that reads King Island: Think Buy Live Local
Locals accept that there are trade-offs that come with living on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Locals on King Island remain staunchly committed to advocating for their community, while at the same time seeming wary of being perceived of asking for too much.

Dr Buchan, who moved to the island three years ago, does not consider their hopes to be unreasonable.

“King islanders are an independent, forthright and formidable group of people. They put up with quite a lot of inconvenience and discomfort while they wait for off-island services to come in,” she said. 

“I think under the circumstances, it would be nice to support a system that really tries to support itself.”


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