Dr Helena Va’a-Fuimaono has worked at the main hospital in Apia, Samoa – Tupua Tamasese Meaole – since graduating from the Fiji School of Medicine. In 2019, she 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. “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. In Samoa we’ve never had local doctors who specialise in this field, which makes me the first. 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.”

While working as a General Outpatient Registrar in Samoa, Dr Va‘a-Fuimaono was being referred dermatology cases after having gained a Certificate in Primary Care Dermatology designed for GPs by the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine. With sponsorship from the World Health Organisation, she was then able to pursue the Postgraduate Diploma in Dermatology 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,” says Dr Va‘a-Fuimaono.

In Samoa, there are many challenges for doctors treating patients with skin conditions. “We have  limited resources, for example, no access to liquid nitrogen and no UVB machine. 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 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.”

Reflecting on her time in Fiji and learning at the Pacific Dermatology Training Centre Dr Va‘a-Fuimaono said she especially loved making new friends and colleagues. 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.”