Samoa's first skin specialist returns

Samoa’s first dermatologist has returned to the country and will oversee the skin clinic unit at the Tupua Tamasese Meaole National Hospital. 

Dr. Helena Vaa-Fuimaono – who is from Ululoloa and Vaitele-Uta and is the daughter of Te'o Unasa Leulu Dr Felise Va'a and Makerita Lafoa'i Va'a – has returned with a postgraduate diploma in dermatology from the Fiji National University.

When contacted by the Samoa Observer for a comment, Dr Vaa-Fuimaono referred this newspaper to a recent interview she did with a medical publication called the Pacific Dermatology.

“I developed an interest in Medicine from a young age and was drawn to Dermatology particularly because I grew up with bad eczema as a child,” Dr Va’a-Fuimaono told Pacific Dermatology.  “The need for dermatology specialisation is obvious in our country as we have many common skin conditions that most of our local doctors are not able to diagnose or treat adequately.” 

Dr Va‘a-Fuimaono was among the first students to graduate with a postgraduate diploma in dermatology from Fiji National University, having studied at the Pacific Dermatology Training Centre at PJ Twomey Hospital, Suva.

While working as a general outpatient registrar in Samoa, Dr Va‘a-Fuimaono was getting patient referrals relating to dermatology cases, after having gained a certificate in primary care dermatology designed for general practitioners by the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine. 

With sponsorship from the World Health Organisation, she was then able to pursue the course offered by Fiji National University, studying at the Pacific Dermatology Training Centre.  

“The qualification has given me a clearer understanding and foundation to build upon in this field to better serve and help my skin patients in my own country which is something that hasn’t been done before,” she said. 

In Samoa, there are many challenges for doctors treating patients with skin conditions, according to Dr Va‘a-Fuimaono.

“We have limited resources, for example, no access to liquid nitrogen and no UVB machine [UVB phototherapy refers to irradiation with shortwave ultraviolet radiation. To treat the whole body, the patient, undressed, stands in a specially designed cabinet containing fluorescent light tubes]. There is no local pathologist with dermatology expertise, so we rely on temporary overseas help.”

When Dr Va‘a-Fuimaono returned to Samoa, she achieved her initial goal, to start the first skin clinic for Samoans and gain the support of the hospital leadership. 

“Once this is well established, I hope we will train our young medical students and other doctors in the field and also work with the Ministry of Health to bring about more awareness of skin care and common skin conditions”. 

Dr Va‘a-Fuimaono says there is a need to create more public awareness and knowledge within the medical profession in Samoa about the importance of dermatological health. She aims to be a strong and enthusiastic advocate. 

“I am working with the Ministry on this with public notices, programs on television and radio and developing posters and pamphlets. I will also present at our doctors’ continuing education session. I plan to do audits on my cases and eventually work on studies and publications on various dermatological interests in Samoa.” 

Her advice for future students at the training centre: “Learn as much as you can handle. Always ask your lecturer and supervisor as many questions as permitted before an assessment or exam for guidance and how to approach each scenario. What they expect and how they will assess may be different from your own expectations.”

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