MAF’s Aerial Health Patrols in PNG go from strength to strength

4th October 2021

Dr Rebecca Williams giving a pregnant woman ultrasound in Malaumanda Village

Four years ago, MAF asked Kompiam Hospital: ‘What would physical and spiritual impact look like in Enga and East Sepik?’ One year on, Kompiam Aerial Health Patrol was born, flying doctors to remote villages in under an hour instead of walking for days to treat patients. Dr Williams shares how MAF has transformed her work and the lives of her people…

Back in November 2017, Todd Aebischer – MAF Papua New Guinea’s Country Director, asked Dr David Mills – who heads up Kompiam Hospital in PNG’s Enga Province – how could MAF transform healthcare in the region?

Situated in the deep north of the country, for years, David and his small team would trek for several days on foot from Kompiam Hospital to reach nine surrounding communities in desperate need of healthcare.

Due to the sheer remoteness and distance of each community, it simply wasn’t possible for the team to visit their patients regularly.

Together, MAF and Kompiam Hospital came up with a plan to serve the local people.

MAF and Kompiam Hospital have been working together since 2017

Four times a year, MAF would transport a medical team to all nine communities and pick them up two days later after completing their rounds.

Thanks to unexpected funding streams, this has become a regular, sustainable programme for MAF PNG – nine airstrips, 18 flights per quarter, 72 flights per year.

Only 500 doctors for nine million people

According to the World Bank, around 80% of Papua New Guinea’s population of almost nine million people, live in the rural areas.

Last year, PNG Prime Minister James Marape publicly acknowledged that the country only has 500 doctors, most of whom practise in urban areas leaving those in the countryside to fend for themselves.

Due to the sheer isolation of these rural areas, it’s hard to recruit and retain health workers in the bush.

Dr Rebecca Williams however, has bucked that trend.

Rebecca – who grew up in PNG’s busy capital city of Port Moresby – joined Kompiam Hospital six years ago as a trainee junior doctor straight out of medical school.

She joined three years before MAF’s aerial patrols started. Today, Rebecca is the superintendent and takes charge of the day-to-day running of the hospital.

Rebecca’s role is varied and intense, and encompasses everything from running clinics, aerial health patrols, child health, maternal health, surgery, hiring staff, writing contracts and even bookkeeping!

It takes two days to reach some villages by foot

Kompiam Hospital serves around 60,000 people – that’s one hospital and two staff doctors for a population that is very scattered across the region.

Most of their patients are in the far-flung villages of Malaumanda, Lapalama, Puyralama, Yankeesa, Yambaitok, Elem and Kyum. Rebecca recalls what life was like before MAF’s aerial health patrols took off:

‘Some of these sites are one or two days walking distance from Kompiam Hospital. When I first came to Kompiam, Dr Mills was doing the patrols on foot! On foot, you get a true sense of how difficult it is for our people to access healthcare.

‘Foot patrols also take more time away from the hospital and if there’s only one doctor working at the hospital at a time, that means we can’t cover the hospital either.’

Dr Williams and team are able to treat more people thanks to time saved by flying

Rebecca continues:

‘When MAF’s aerial health patrols started, it was really good because we saw areas even further away from us that we couldn’t walk to in two days. Flying is easier – we see who we need to see and then come back in a day or two. Reaching more communities in our area is a big advantage for us.’

On a two-day patrol – usually from Tuesday morning to Wednesday evening – Rebecca and the team can see up to 100 patients.

Welcome to Malaumanda Village

Inside Malaumanda Village, deep within the bush where telecommunications are challenging

Rebecca leads the latest MAF Aerial Health Patrol to Malaumanda Village, which has a population of around 300 people. The village is so cut off, it takes a four hike before catching a mobile phone signal.

Malaumanda is a 20 minute flight from Kompiam Hospital.

A typical patrol team comprises of a doctor, a dentist, community health workers and a pastor. On arrival, time is split between general patient practice and administering vaccinations.

On the flight, the medical team is accompanied by medicine and other medical supplies.

Sometimes, patients are too sick to be treated in the bush and need further treatment or surgery back at Kompiam Hospital.

Mia and Masi have suspected TB and are flown to Kompiam Hospital for surgery

During the latest aerial patrol at Malaumanda Village, Rebecca examines two young girls – five- year-old Mia and eight-year-old Masi – with suspected TB:

‘There are two children who we think have TB of the lymph nodes, so we’d like to fly them back, admit them to hospital, extract some of that lymph node, test it to confirm the TB diagnosis and start them on medication. They’ll spend two months on meds at Kompiam Hospital. By then they’ll go back to Malaumanda when they’ll be clear of TB.

‘If we weren’t able to fly those two young girls back with us, most likely they would have gotten sicker and eventually they might have died from the disease. These girls will be given beds with their guardian in the paediatric ward.’

Following successful surgery, Masi (L) and Mia (R) are recovering well

Kompiam Hospital – where Rebecca is based – has adequate facilities and equipment to treat a range of conditions. Rebecca gave the US Ambassador, Erin McKee, a tour of the hospital last month:

God had other plans for Rebecca

Working in the bush as a doctor was not what Rebecca had envisioned, but God had other plans:

‘I’ve lived most of my life in urban areas, so I really didn’t think that I’d be doing rural patrols like this! As a medical student, I didn’t see that as part of my career.

‘Previously I did some training at Kompiam and had seen how Dr Mills had run the hospital. I got some really good mentorship and training there.

‘I had applied to several other hospitals at the time, but no one accepted me. Kompiam was the first hospital that accepted me, so that’s where I ended up! I really think it was God’s hand on my life as it wasn’t something I thought of or chose for myself.’

During the patrols, Rebecca and the team commonly treat patients with chronic illnesses, arthritis, malaria, fungal infections and infectious diseases like TB. They also check on expectant mothers. The further away the patrols are from Kompiam’s centre, the more prevalent malnutrition is.

In the three years since MAF’s Kompiam Aerial Health Patrols started, Rebecca says healthcare for the region’s most isolated people has significantly improved:

‘We’re rolling out more immunisations, especially in areas where there is no vaccine fridge. Our immunisation coverage is pretty good for our district. We haven’t had any severe outbreaks – a big part of that is down to having a team like this flying out routinely to immunise patients, treating them or flying them back to Kompiam Hospital if necessary.’

Standard vaccinations during the patrols include measles, pentavalent (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, hepatitis B and Haemophilus flu), tetox (tetanus toxoid) and TB.

Rebecca and the team vaccinate children against a range of diseases

‘Holistic healing’

Training up rural community health workers for each village is also integral to maintaining good healthcare in remote areas.

During the aerial patrols, medics from Kompiam Hospital deliver training to new community health workers and assess existing ones to ascertain their standard of care. These community health workers also get to spend several months at Kompiam Hospital to reinforce their training.

Six years later, Rebecca is still enjoying the job:

‘Being able to help people and bringing some kind of comfort or closure to them or their family – that is for me. It’s useful and I find that very satisfying.’

Unlike secular medical outreach, for Rebecca, the spiritual element of the aerial patrols is what sets them apart from other programmes:

‘Not everything can be treated by medicine or seeing a doctor – some things are spiritual. We want people to receive holistic healing and for them to know Christ. That’s the whole point of these patrols. Through our actions and serving the communities, we are a reflection of God so that people may come to know him.’

Dr Williams, Superintendent at Kompiam Hospital

Rebecca concludes by making a plea to aspiring doctors from Papua New Guinea:

‘To all those young people who want to take up medicine, often we see ourselves in top careers and being someone big in society’s eyes. If that is your vision or dream, serving as a rural doctor probably isn’t for someone who wants to make a name for themselves.

‘But I’ve come to realise out here, that serving my community is very important. For us people who have the opportunity to gain a higher education, we can give back to our country. We can’t keep looking to outsiders to serve our own people. If we don’t do it, no one is going to do it for us. It’s time we take ownership and help our own people.’

Dr Rebecca Williams examines a woman’s arm during her visit to Malaumanda

MAF’s Aerial Health Patrols continue to grow

Since MAF’s Kopiam Aerial Health patrols launched in 2018 in northern PNG, MAF has expanded its aerial health patrols into other parts of the country.

From July 2019, MAF has been delivering regular preventative care, immunisations, health and sanitation training to isolated communities in the west, along the Indonesian border.

Lutheran Aerial Health Patrols have also been established in Morobe Province on the north coast of PNG and plans are afoot to establish similar health patrols in Jiwaka Province in central PNG and elsewhere.

This expansion has resulted in the purchase of two additional Cessna 208 aircraft, which now serve 34 airstrips with 4 medical teams.

By the end of 2023, MAF aims to expand its Aerial Health Patrols to 72 airstrips across PNG. A total of 12 medical teams will bring healthcare to the country’s most isolated people.