It is certainly a cause for celebration for the country to see a group of the first graduates from the National University of Samoa School of Medicine last week.
In a country where we seem to have more than enough of some of the other professionals such as accountants and lawyers, Samoa like most other countries around the world is constantly short of doctors.
And it’s not only doctors.
Other medical professionals and particularly those in specialist positions are also in short supply.
The problem harks back to long before the time when those students who were awarded scholarships and gained their degrees were required and in fact bonded, to return to Samoa and serve out some years in acknowledgement of the taxpayer investment in their training and careers.
Sadly, whoever was supposed to have been monitoring this situation, didn’t.
Consequently many of our students if not most, just never bothered to return after graduation and lured by higher salaries and unworried by any nagging thoughts of duty and responsibilities conveniently forgot the substantial money from taxpayers who had helped them achieve their dreams.
So with the normal attrition rate of doctors who were already overworked and underpaid and aging, the situation has swung between dire and stretched for a number of years.
Like the teaching professionals in Samoa, medical personnel burn out, opt to do the minimum or lose enthusiasm and even leave altogether so that others are under even more stress.
Luckily for us, like Sports Tourism there is such a thing as Health Tourism.
This is how we have been able to attract interns and other young, about to be doctors who are partially trained or newly-graduated to spend time in Samoa. The upside for them – particularly those from Europe and even New Zealand and Australia, is that they get to live in a warm climate which they can make the most of in their off duty hours.
They get to take part in medical procedures that in a first world country would not be allowed or possible. They marvel at our doctors’ skills in being able to diagnose with the minimum of tools and electronic equipment which is basic in first world countries. However while an extra pair of hands with some knowledge can be useful, it is in the senior positions where we are lacking health professionals. There are also few opportunititeies for doctors to have in service training let alone stay abreast of the latest techniques in books and on the Internet.It’s difficult to point the finger at doctors who after years of long hours on hospital rosters, prefer to opt for private practice where they have more control over their lives and can spend time with their own families.
And while we have a brand new hospital, the hours are still long, equipment and resources are minimal or lacking and the response from members of the public is often unsympathetic at stressful times when people are unwell.
The other side of having a medical school in Samoa apart from not having to police a bond system, is that it is less expensive for the government and families.
But whether being able to stay home while studying is an advantage for students who will spend six plus years doing just that probably depends on individual home circumstances.
Certainly, top student 27 year old Kamara Aniva Pouono seems to be under no illusions about the fact that having completed over six years of studying, she will now be doing equally long, gruelling hours of practicing what she has learned.
“I feel quite happy and proud because it wasn’t an easy journey at all, it took a lot of sacrifice especially time - times away from my family and friends,” she said. “As you all know medicine is not something that you can just take lightly, time is needed it’s something that requires a lot of time, hard work, dedication and a lot of sacrifice.”
Sensibly, she has said she will just take a step at a time rather than rushing in and choosing a specialist area to focus on.
She also spoke a little wistfully of the ordinary pleasures of being with family and friends she had to forgo in order to have the time to do the necessary study.
“The most challenging part of my journey was the time factor,” she said. “I didn’t get to spend much time I would like with family and friends because I had to commit a lot of time to the work needed to make sure that I studied hard. There were also times that I felt like giving up especially the hard work that I had to go through and the restless nights.”
However for now, Kamara and her seven fellow graduates can take a moment to savour the satisfaction of success before they embark on the next stage of their careers.