Volunteers support the upskilling of doctors in Solomon Islands

For the sixth year, Australian volunteers have contributed to the training of young doctors at the National Referral Hospital.

2020 was a challenging year for health workers around the world. Despite the impacts of COVID-19, for the sixth year, the Solomon Islands’ National Referral Hospital (NRH) celebrated the graduation of 11 doctors from its Bridging Internship Program.

Frances Kennedy helping run a workshop for medical trainees at the Solomon Islands National Referral Hospital, with Jane Barker who is joining via Zoom. Photo: Derol Konofilia Sanga
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Fandry Vae, bridging program intern at the Solomon Islands National Referral Hospital. Photo: Suzanne Pohlner

These doctors will now progress their two-year internship program at NRH and, once registered with the Solomon Islands Medical and Dental Board, will be qualified to work in the health facilities across the Solomon Islands.

Australian volunteers who have supported the program, Frances Kennedy in Honiara and Suzanne Pohlner and Dr Jane Barker in Australia, joined their colleagues in celebrating the occasion in person and online on 26 November 2020.

The three volunteers supported the Bridging Internship Program as part of the Solomon Islands Medical Partnerships for Learning, Education and Research (SIMPLER), a collaboration between the Australian Volunteers Program, Australian College of Emergency Medicine (ACEM), AVI, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Solomon Islands Ministry of Health and Medical Services (MHMS) and the NRH.

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Left to right: Resident Medical Officer Delma Ragoso, Australian volunteer Dr Jane Barker, bridging program intern Audrey Mauli, Resident Medical Officer Alison Lalega and Resident Medical Officer Newton Konare at the Solomon Islands National Referral Hospital. Photo: Suzanne Pohlner
Australian volunteer Frances Kennedy at the Solomon Islands National Referral Hospital in Honiara. Photo: Derol Konofilia Sanga

“As the Solomon Islands’ medical workforce receives their medical training overseas, Australian volunteers have been assigned to support our local counterparts to manage the interns’ ongoing education and development,” says emergency department nursing advisor Frances.

The Bridging Internship Program, which began in 2015, has seen multiple volunteers supporting interns who have returned from overseas medical training.

In March this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, Frances stayed in Solomon Islands to support the medical response, while medical workforce training and development coordinator Suzanne and medical educator Jane were repatriated to Australia.

The Solomon Islands has just 159 practicing doctors for a national population of 669,823 (one doctor for every 4,212 patients, well below the WHO recommended 1:1000 ratio).

With the other volunteers back in Australia, Frances took on more responsibility for coordinating the Bridging Internship Program.

A part of the Solomon Islands National Referral Hospital. Photo: Derol Konofilia Sanga
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Junior Medical Officer John Gesini (left) and bridging program intern Fandry Vae during a training session at the Solomon Islands National Referral Hospital. Photo: Suzanne Pohlner

“[Frances] has organised training for staff, established overseas connections and people to speak to interns, run workshops, and been very innovative,” says Dr Jagilly, Chairman of the NRH Medical Training Committee.

From their homes in Australia, Suzanne and Jane continued to provide remote support for the Bridging Internship Program through online lectures, education materials and training.

Working in close partnership with NRH staff, Suzanne and Jane needed to adapt quickly to stay connected and continue to support the Bridging Internship Program from Australia.

“Although Suzanne and I had to return to Australia, we continued to work together with Frances and the Medical Training Committee, chaired by Dr Rooney Jagilly, to deliver a comprehensive training program to the bridging interns,” says Jane.

On top of their already heavy clinical load, NRH staff took on the daunting task of preparing for the threat of COVID-19, strengthening infection control and training all staff in public health measures.

The COVID-19 threat has required us to plan and implement strategies to manage in the event we have community transmission.

— Frances Kennedy

“We’ve made improvements with our PPE (personal protective equipment), triaging and clinical practices and are in the process of building a more fit-for-purpose area in which to treat potential COVID-positive patients.”

The pandemic also required the Bridging Internship Program to explore online communication and education strategies.

“It has not been as easy with Suzanne and Jane offsite, but if we didn’t have their support it would make our training even more difficult,” says Dr Jagilly.

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Australian volunteer Frances Kennedy (right) with her colleague Willie Falebo (clinical nurse consultant) at the Solomon Islands National Referral Hospital in Honiara. Photo: Derol Konofilia Sanga
A view of Honiara from the sky. Photo: Derol Konofilia Sanga

“They have helped to continue running the internship program, while Jane has looked into setting up a Graduate Diploma in Rural Medicine.”

The Graduate Diploma is aimed at new graduates who are interested in working in rural and remote communities – where the majority of Solomon Islands’ population lives.

It has been a challenging year for all involved, but NRH staff and the Australian volunteers quickly adapted to changing circumstances, and successfully delivered the Bridging Internship Program.

“With ongoing support from Australian volunteers, the NRH, despite heavy clinical workloads and preparation for the pandemic we all hope will never eventuate, has given 11 young doctors the training opportunity they needed,” says Jane.

Better trained doctors means better infection control, stronger medical leadership and doctors who are better prepared to deal with pandemics such as COVID-19.

— Suzanne Pohlner

The teamwork and collaboration between NRH staff, Australian volunteers and local AVI staff, as well as the interns’ own commitment and hard work culminated in a celebration of the young doctors’ graduation at a special ceremony attended by representatives from NRH, the Australian High Commission and AVI.


Through the Solomon Islands Medical Partnership for Learning, Education and Research (SIMPLER), formerly known as SIGISSP, trained Australian medical specialists assist in the supervision and training of large numbers of returned foreign-trained medical graduates in Solomon Islands, as well as providing continuous medical education opportunities. This work supports the Solomon Islands Ministry of Health and Medical Services and strengthens the roll-out of the medical workforce to rural and remote locations, as well as building more effective and efficient health systems, in line with the Solomon Islands’ National Role Delineation Policy.