Papua New Guinean doctor John Bolnga receives inaugural research scholarship

Date: 12/10/2018


Cabrini’s Outreach program is helping to improve the quality and safety of health care in Papua New Guinea, with the inaugural John Griffiths Research Travel scholarship awarded in 2018 to Papua New Guinean doctor John Bolnga.

The scholarship is awarded in honour of John Griffiths, who commenced volunteering in Papua New Guinea in 1998. Mr Griffiths led the first Cabrini Outreach Orthopaedic Service Program to Modilon General Hospital in Papua New Guinea in 2000 and has visited the country more than 17 times to carry out vital orthopaedic surgery for local residents.

In honour of Mr Griffiths’ commitment to education and training at Modilon General Hospital, Cabrini and Modilon General Hospital have established the John Griffiths Research Travel Scholarship.

The aim of the scholarship is to recognise the contribution of local doctors who are carrying out important research in Papua New Guinea. The scholarship will be awarded each year to a doctor from Modilon General Hospital, enabling them to present their research in Australia.

Dr Bolnga was selected as the inaugural scholarship recipient based on his research into maternal near-misses in Papua New Guinea.

Dr Bolnga is the specialist obstetrician at Modilon General Hospital and until January he had been the only obstetrician operating in the hospital for the past eight years.

The scholarship enabled Dr Bolnga to come to Australia during Cabrini’s Research Week to present his study Maternal near-misses at a provincial hospital in Papua New Guinea: A prospective observational study, which was recently published in the Australian and New Zealand journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Participating in research week has also exposed him to new developments in medical research and best-practice processes in Australia.

He said maternal complications during childbirth were common in Papua New Guinea and especially at provincial hospitals such as Modilon General Hospital, where many underprivileged women live.

“Women in Papua New Guinea rarely access pre-natal care and more than 50 per cent receive no pre-natal care at all,” Dr Bolnga said.

“This makes it really hard, as they only present to the hospital when they are in labour and we have to act on the spot. We have no history or understanding of any underlying health issues they may have.

“We deal with these issues as we go but it is a big challenge.”

Dr Bolnga said Papua New Guinea had one of the highest maternal death rates in the world.

“We have made significant progress in bringing the maternal death rate down but it is a daily struggle for us and there is so much more that needs to be done,” he said.

“Often, we lack very basic medicine or we will run into a shortage of a necessary medication but we just have to do what we can with what we have available.

“Our labour ward used to be regularly flooded with heavy rains and power outages were common which meant our midwives were sometimes forced to deliver babies by torchlight.”

He said the hospital needed more political support but was competing with other priorities such as increasing basic literacy and numeracy skills, which were also severely lacking in the country.

“We have a weak healthcare system that needs substantial reforms but we also have many other issues that need addressing and they are all connected, it is difficult to address one issue without neglecting the other issues.”

Dr Bolnga said the partnership between the two hospitals had made an incredible difference to patient care and outcomes.

“We are incredibly thankful to Cabrini Outreach for the ongoing support they have provided us,” he said.

“The relationship with Cabrini has been very helpful, particularly with the training and clinical teaching the hospital has provided.”

Cabrini assisted with the development of a new operating theatre at Modilon General Hospital, which was based on architectural designs from a theatre in Australia.

“Our new operating theatre has been the basis of excellence for the rest of the country. Since building it, we have had many other hospitals across the country come in and copy the design.”

“Now we have a proper theatre, we are able to perform more operations that would have otherwise been cancelled.”

Dr Bolnga said one of the services that had fundamentally changed the way the hospital was able to treat patients was the histopathology agreement we have with Cabrini.

Prior to the histopathology agreement with Cabrini, Modilon General Hospital was required to send all tissue biopsies to Port Moresby, more than 500km away. Limited capacity meant some patients would wait up to eight months or more for results of the biopsies.

“The extreme processing times in Port Moresby meant that by the time we got the results, many of our patients had already died or were beyond being able to be treated,” Dr Bolnga said.

“With our new relationship with Cabrini Health, we are able to send the biopsies for analysis in Australia and we have been able to receive results in as little as two weeks. This enables us to treat our patients more quickly and appropriately.”

Dr Bolnga said he was grateful to have received the inaugural John Griffiths Research Travel scholarship to allow him to come to Australia and improve his knowledge.

“Sadly, not many of us have the opportunity for research as we are so busy with our daily workloads. I have developed an interest in research and was grateful to have been given this opportunity to come to Australia,” he said.

“I hope this will help to develop a culture of research within the hospital. I’m happy to pave the way for others and I look forward to more of our staff coming out to Australia to take up this opportunity.

“We live in a global society, we need to practice evidence-based research to improve our processes.”

Cabrini Outreach first partnered with Modilon General Hospital, a government provincial hospital in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea in 2007 and has provided more than $772,000 in financial support to the hospital during this time.

The partnership is designed to strengthen and support healthcare in Papua New Guinea, drawing on the resources of Cabrini Health in Australia, to assist the country to meet the United Nation’s sustainable development goals.