Gary Phelps

Developing an internationally recognised training programme within the Pacific Islands context

With approximately 80,000 people in the Pacific being blind and up to 250,000 suffering significant vision loss, up to 80% of visual impairment can be avoided or treated by appropriately trained personnel and sufficient resources.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) has been working in partnership with the Pacific Eye Institute (PEI) and The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ since mid-2011 to strengthen the capacity of PEI to train ophthalmologists in the Pacific Islands region through a capacity building project at PEI.

The project has consisted of a number of components during this time, including curricula review and customisation, procurement and installation of equipment, specialty area training and strengthening of the examination process.

In 2012, Dr. Gary Phelps took the opportunity as the RANZCO teaching ophthalmologist to be a key contributor to the strengthening of PEI as a training centre for eye doctors from across the Pacific region. Gary mentored staff and trainees, supervised clinics and engaged in surgical training and service delivery, particularly with the implementation of the Suva Diabetes Eye Program.

The challenge

PEI, located in Suva, Fiji, is the Pacific region's first training facility for eye health professionals and is the only training institute for ophthalmologists in the Pacific region (except for Papua New Guinea). Trainees come from throughout the 14 Pacific islands nations and are trained specifically to provide eye care in the Pacific context.

Gary was tasked with leading the revision of the existing curricula at the Institute to ensure that the academic programme was in-line with international standards, but contextualised to the Pacific Islands context. As part of the implementation of the revised curricula Gary was also required to lead the implementation of an innovative programme of visiting specialists to backfill and complement the permanent PEI faculty.

Additionally, to further strengthen the standing of PEI to international standards, Gary aimed to increase the participation of PEI trainees and staff in research projects.

The solution

Gary was a key player in leading the development and implementation of the residency education package customised for PEI, co-developed and led by RANZCO.

In addition to providing technical expertise, Gary adapted quickly to the Pacific Islands context and had an energetic and fearless approach to shaping the teaching programmeand mentoring staff at PEI. "Gary raised the bar considerably and gave the programme more shape and momentum. He has also strengthened existing staff capacity," said Dr. Roger Dethlefs who leads the surgical training initiative at PEI.

Ensuring that all trainees were catered for in a meaningful way, Gary's enthusiasm and unique style had a substantial impact on the success of the teaching programme. He was flexible in his teaching style and trainees commented that "he makes students feel comfortable which is good for learning, and he works well under pressure effectively managing the competing demands of outreach and service delivery."

Trainees were also impressed that "Gary adapted accordingly to the Fiji context which is not easy for everyone". Visiting specialists agreed that "Dr. Phelps has great enthusiasm, is energetic and exhibits and encourages high professional standards".

Gary was a member of the working group that revised the existing PEI curricula and was key to the operationalisation of it through his unique approach to the teaching programme and understanding of the Pacific 'way of working'.

With his infectious enthusiasm Gary succesfully encouraged an increasing number of trainees to undertake research and instilled a culture of high standards projects at PEI.