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Source: University of Otago

Dr Vakaola Mafi and his wife Dr Ruonamakin Rui.
Dr Vakaola Mafi has overcome the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to achieve a notable first.
Dr Mafi is the first Pacific Island-based doctor to be awarded the University of Otago’s Postgraduate Diploma in Rural and Provincial Hospital Medicine.
His study in the largely distance-taught diploma was facilitated under an Memorandum of Understanding between the Cook Islands’ Ministry of Health and the University of Otago. He will graduate in absentia on 8 May.

“The distance aspect of the programme means Pacific countries don’t lose their doctors. They continue working there, but they can also tap into this qualification which is nationally recognised in New Zealand.”

Dr Mafi’s achievement is all the more significant because his final paper was completed entirely virtually because of the pandemic.
When he was unable to travel to the five-day residential course in Taranaki, a virtual link-in was created by the Otago’s rural postgraduate faculty.
While this was less than ideal, the virtual connection ensured he was able to complete the qualification.
Otago’s Pacific Nation Liaison, Dr Kati Blattner, said the teaching team was highly experienced at delivering distance learning but the virtual placement was “a different ballgame”.
The solution was a ‘hybrid residential’ with Dr Mafi and two other Pacific Islands-based doctors working by Zoom into a room with a group of doctors in New Zealand.
“Running a hybrid workshop – managing in person and virtual students and ensuring they are connected with the teachers and the other students – is a whole different level of complexity so we had to think on our feet really quickly. We just had to get more savvy with our technologies, our communication and our setups. It was not the same as being here, but the bottom line is Dr Mafi had access to the course and he could finish this qualification.”
Dr Mafi grew up in Tonga and completed his medical degree at Fiji National University. He moved to the Cook Islands with his wife Ruonamakin Rui, who is also a doctor, seven years ago, working as a general medical practitioner both in Aitutaki and Rarotonga.
In 2016, with limited postgraduate clinical training options open to him, he began to study in the Otago Postgraduate Rural programme. Determined to reach his goal, he worked steadily at completing individual papers one at a time, studying in his own time alongside his full-time clinical commitments.
Dr Mafi said the best aspects of his study have been gaining connections and friendships with rural and GP colleagues in New Zealand and other students in the Pacific.
“The biggest gain has been learning relevant, evidence-based practice to a NZ standard which I can apply in my daily practice.”
He has expressed his gratitude to his family who have supported him throughout this journey.
Dr Blattner said there was growing interest from Pacific nations in the programme.
“It creates access from the Pacific to an academic course which is really relevant, covering rural medicine and general practice. So, there is clinical synergy, a relevant curriculum, and creates for the doctors a network of peers while allowing them to stay at home but also to study and progress.
“The distance aspect of the programme means Pacific countries don’t lose their doctors. They continue working there, but they can also tap into this qualification which is nationally recognised in New Zealand.”

MIL OSI