Dr Ilaisaane Fonohema in Brisbane
Ilaisaane Fonohema has high hopes of helping fill the gap in Tonga's healthcare system. Image by Darren England/AAP PHOTOS
  • health

Pathology training helping build up Pacific health care

Rachael Ward March 24, 2024

Patients being tested for cancer, infectious diseases and diabetes in Ilaisaane Fonohema’s home country face long and anxious delays for their results.

But as a desperately needed doctor in Tonga, she is determined to help change that.

She is one of two practitioners undertaking specialist training in pathology, with no full time specialists currently working in the Pacific island nation of more than 100,000 people.

Instead, an Australian pathologist examines most of Tonga’s medical tests more than 4000km away in Victoria, but there are hopes Dr Fonohema and her colleague will soon take on the bulk of that work.

“If there’s no pathology, there’s really no point of health care, or maybe I’m just biased,” she told AAP.

Dr Fonohema has just completed a three-month stint at a laboratory in Geelong before returning home to fill the gap in the healthcare system.

There are long delays for test results because there are no pathologists available to read slides, she explained.

“In the end when you finally get a diagnosis, that time of waiting the patient could have already been receiving treatment earlier,” Dr Fonohema said.

“According to the World Health Organisation there is one doctor per 1000 patients for Tonga, but with doctors migrating this number could be less now.”

Retired pathologist David Clift examines the country’s medical results in his capacity as Honorary Pathologist to the Kingdom of Tonga.

He also oversees Dr Fonohema’s training, which he said is the first of its kind, with hopes it can be expanded to other Polynesian nations such as the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Tuvalu.

“There are more pathologists and scientists working in one of the three laboratories in Geelong than there are in Tonga and Samoa,” the Pathology Awareness Australia ambassador said.

“The idea is to have each of these young people fully trained to be able to carry the significant part of the diagnostic load in pathology by the end of 2026.”

He said Australian pathologists would likely stay connected to trainees for years to come, but he hopes to develop a group of qualified professionals who supervise and run laboratories while training the next generation of pathologists.

“The aim is to move from being the provider of services … to being the people who support self-maintaining pathology service,” Dr Clift said.

It’s a plan Dr Fonohema is keen to get started on when she finishes her four-year training program.

She’s gained many insights over the past 12 weeks, ranging from technical knowledge to seeing Australia’s medical culture of teaching on the job.

“I would love to when I’m back home spend more time not only teaching or learning for myself, but also for the others like the trainees, the technicians,” she said.