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For thousands in Fiji and across the Pacific, access to highly skilled primary health care professionals in rural and remote communities can be lifesaving. So when James Cook University’s (JCU) Doctor Ruth Eagles was given the opportunity to assist with establishing the country’s first Postgraduate Diploma of Family Medicine through Fiji National University, she jumped at the chance, packing up her young family and relocating to Suva for six months.
“I think this is a wonderful first step. I hope it will continue to develop, and lead to a level of professional recognition for those who provide a very valuable and much needed service within the community", Dr Eagles said.
Until now Fijian doctors wanting to specialise in General Practice have had to undertake training in either Australia or New Zealand. The Postgraduate Diploma in Family Medicine provides a region-specific course that allows doctors to train locally while still living and working in their communities.
“We’re using a distance education model for this program. It’s a little different to any other postgraduate diploma offered in Fiji. Being a primary care specialty program it was important for us to keep people where they’re most needed.
“Our students are fully qualified doctors already working in the primary care sector. It’s pretty exciting to be able to keep them in their communities while they study. It's particularly important in the more remote areas where their departure would have a big impact,” she said.
The course is also benefiting those further afield, with the Diploma also being undertaken by doctors in the neighbouring Kingdom of Tonga.
“It’s a new and innovative training model for Fiji. We have nine students at the moment. Our five Fijian students are located in towns and cities which span Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, from east to west. We have also been able to have four based in Tonga, right from the first cohort”, she said.
The idea to set up the program first came about five years ago during a visit to Fiji by the head of JCU’s GP Training program, Dr Peta-Ann Teague, who saw the benefits of locally trained specialists working in underserved communities.
“Good primary care is the building block of health for communities. If you have good, effective primary care, you can keep people healthy, not just treat them when they get sick.
“It's a game changer for under-resourced and remote communities when you have doctors who can provide primary health care, as well as treat patients when they become seriously unwell", Dr Teague said.
And Dr Teague believes offering a fit for purpose course developed in-country will have many benefits.
“It’s wonderful that this is a home grown degree, not an overseas course imposed on Fijians. It also means doctors haven't had to leave to study something in Australia or New Zealand that doesn’t fit their community. It’s aimed at the needs of the region.”
There have been several attempts to get the project off the ground over the past few years, but it has been a partnership between Fiji National University’s School of Medical Sciences, and James Cook University, that saw it come to life.
Dr Eagles believes improvements in technology are providing an ever evolving and supportive learning environment, while allowing doctors to remain where they are most needed.
“The use of webinars and online discussion forums has helped. Even if these doctors are widely dispersed they can still collaborate on a day to day basis.”
The first cohort started in February and is expected to graduate at the end of the year. Meanwhile, planning is already underway to develop a course for doctors to train to the specialist Masters level in Family Medicine.
“To specialise in Fiji you initially do a one year diploma, which gives you a basic qualification in that field. Graduates can then apply for a Masters level course which leads to specialisation in the field. This program is very much in line with that.”
“The course would have a very strong rural component. Doctors wanting to work in remote regions would develop a broad array of advanced clinical skills to serve their communities.”
James Cook University has already worked with Fiji National University and the Fijian government to support a Masters in Emergency Medicine in the Pacific nation.
Dr Teague says the latest collaboration is continuing to deepen and strengthen relationships while helping with capacity building in the region.
“We have a very respectful and collaborative relationship, which benefits all of us. None of this has happened by chance”, she said.
While Dr Eagles and her Family are now back in Australia, she’ll continue to manage aspects of the program remotely. In the meantime, Rockhampton based GP and JCU Medical Educator Dr Nadim Cody will take up the baton as the full time course coordinator in Fiji for the next year.