Hope for Health in PNG

Hope for Health in PNG

Peta Snikeris, a health lecturer from Wollongong NSW has spent a year in Papua New Guinea mentoring students and staff at Divine Word University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, finding her early hopes fulfilled much more than expected. She writes.

So here I am, twelve months on from arriving at Divine Word University in Madang, Papua New Guinea and my role still changes on a regular basis. Before I left home the idea was that I would come to the university to assist in getting their laboratory based research off the ground, helping to plan research and find funding sources, as well as applying for funding along the way. During the discussions regarding my placement I had requested that some teaching be included in my role description along with the research focus, as passing on my love of learning is one of my passions.  It turned out on arrival, that teaching was actually to be the initial focus! I spent the first semester teaching anatomy to the 1st year physiotherapy students.

A day or two before I started teaching I was regaled with stories of how lazy the students here are, how they don’t read, and they definitely don’t participate in class. My experience, I am pleased to say, is that this is far from the truth. Of course there are some students who are not as committed as others, but in general the students were keen to learn, and willing to participate – once I gained their trust and respect (fair enough too). Over the course of the semester I got to know my class very well and from speaking to them now as seasoned second year students, they tell me that I initially freaked them out with the volume of work, but once they could see I was committed to making sure they could follow and understand, they were encouraged to work hard and keep up. In fact they tell me that their anatomy knowledge is now so good that in a current subject where they are partnered with fourth year students they are teaching the more senior students a thing or too about anatomy, and sharing my notes and teaching material with their senior colleagues to boot! I will not be teaching the same subject this semester, but I have sat down with the new lecturer, a lovely local physiotherapist and passed on all my teaching material and what I learned through trial and error to help the next cohort receive the same experience. We will work together as much as my successor wants and needs to be sure that she does not need to start from as little as my predecessor and I did.

During that first semester, I also assisted by teaching neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, as well as immunology, for two of my colleagues who were attempting to teach anatomy and physiology to future Health Extension Officers in a trial of block teaching. Let’s just say it was an interesting experiment that is not being repeated this year!

Now, some of you might be asking what a Health Extension Officer (HEO) is? This is not a position we have in Australia, the closest thing we have would be a nurse practitioner, although HEO’s are expected not only to be clinicians in remote rural areas where there are no doctors, but also public health officials, and health centre managers. It is a challenging position, and a challenging skill set to try to teach in a four year undergraduate degree. This brings me to the next role that evolved over time and is still not related to research! I have been assisting the head of department for HEO teaching to review the HEO degree program to balance the skill sets taught with the time available without compromising clinical skills (some would argue the most important role of the HEO, and the most often criticized). We have had a number of workshops and discussions to decide on which parts of the current content we keep, which parts are good on paper but not so great in the actual teaching, and which parts need to go to make space for those things identified both internally and externally as lacking in the current program. It is a difficult process and has not been without challenges, but we are moving ahead and will hopefully have an improved program to implement next year.

In the middle of this process, it was decided that Divine Word university would introduce an actual medical degree program. First I was to be involved, then I was not, then I was, and now it

What I have done however, is to get moving on the set up of a simulation room and anatomy models lab. We took delivery of the first pieces of equipment this week, and will have a room set up by next week to start integrating this equipment into our teaching. Just this week I have been asked to manage the set up and teaching integration for this equipment and making sure it is respected, maintained, and most importantly, used, by all staff and students who can benefit from it.

In all of this, I would have to say that teaching students has been the most rewarding aspect of my placement. I have received some amazing feedback from my students who have told me I have inspired them to learn and to apply themselves to their studies. This in the end is, for me, the best place to have an impact – on the future health workers, the future health teachers, and perhaps even future leaders of PNG.

seems I am not again! For that one I am happy to be on the sideline and assisting where asked as it is a massive undertaking and will take longer than my placement to really get it going.

Let’s see what roles the rest of my placement brings!

Peta mentions a common but quite false perception that students and staff of a host culture being mentored by a Western volunteer or trainer are not really engaged or responsive. A fact our volunteers find is that through a relationship of trust they are actually more interested, engaged, inspired and committed than students in Australia. Often there is a real hunger and thirst for the skills and knowledge a volunteer will impart.

Recently Australian universities have been rocked by allegations they have just become ‘degree factories’ with little capacity gained by students, even on graduation. Hopefully the Papuan medical students at DWU will have the opportunity soon to attain a degree which truly certifies the skills they have gained – skills which are ultimately most important to them and PNG.