Expanding Access to Health Care in Papua New Guinea with Handheld Ultrasound

A portable ultrasound device brings advanced medical technology to a town with limited infrastructure

Photo Credit: Marie Elizabeth Bell

Spread across approximately 178-thousand square miles in the Southwestern Pacific, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world with more than 800 languages spoken among its eight million inhabitants.

The country’s geography is equally diverse with extremely rugged conditions in some areas that offer limited or no infrastructure, which can present a serious challenge in a medical emergency.

Bell uses the ultrasound device to image a broken bone

Marie Elizabeth Bell, a nurse in the United States, recently spent nine months in PNG’s Gulf Province to work at the Kunai Health Centre.

She was surrounded by beautiful mountains and landscape, but with no roads or vehicles in sight. Transportation is entirely foreign to the Kamea people who occupy this area, so travel is measured in terms of walking distance. “The provincial hospital is a three-day walk from where we were based,” said Marie.

Marie supported an outpatient center that offered basic healthcare services, including prenatal care, baby milk program, a tuberculosis program (PNG has one of the highest rates of TB in the world), vaccines, and a malnutrition program.

The clinic lacked advanced medical imaging technology, except for a handheld ultrasound called Vscan™ with Dual Probe. The device can fit in a pocket, and easily be recharged for continual use, which is especially helpful given the rugged and remote landscape.

“The Vscan was particularly helpful for prenatal care,” says Marie. “It can be life changing for some of these expectant moms, as this may be the only medical care they receive during their entire pregnancy. We can check the baby’s position and rule out any complications.”

Most of the women they saw would eventually deliver in their homes without any support from a medical team. Unfortunately, PNG is plagued with one of the highest infant and mortality rates in the world. “Most parents don’t give their baby a name until they’re about one year old because they don’t know if they’re going to survive,” Marie shared.

One particular case left an indelible impression on Marie.

Yaniamo, a local resident, had experienced nine pregnancies, twice with twins, but had only six living children. She was pregnant again when her water broke unexpectedly. Concerned about any possible complications, she decided to seek medical care - a two-day hike from where she lived.

Photo Credit: Marie Elizabeth Bell

Equipped with enough food for the trip, Yaniamo traveled with her husband and two of their children to the clinic. The team immediately performed an ultrasound with the Vscan, and found that her baby was transverse, making a natural delivery out of the question. For the next five days, she kept coming back for an ultrasound to check on the baby’s position, but the baby had not budged.

They discussed traveling to Kerema, a coastal town where the provincial hospital is located, and where they could perform a C-section, but there were concerns about travel and budget. Over the next few hours, more than five physicians were consulted in four different countries for possible treatments. The team managed to coordinate a helicopter ride to transport Yaniamo and her husband to Kerema’s hospital. This couple who had never even seen a car, was now sitting in a helicopter. The surgery was successful and ended up saving Yaniamo’s life.

Marie recently returned to the United States, where she will continue practicing as a nurse. She brings back her many memories of PNG and the wonderful people she cared for.