The first time I heard about this title, I thought it was just like any other in PNG. Papua New Guineans love their titles! Someone who has basic training in healthcare is called a community healthcare worker (CHW). Some villages aren’t fortunate enough to have a CHW, but they might have someone who is passionate about health and who has read a book about it once and they’ll call them a first aid officer. When I heard of “HEO’s” I though oh yeah… another one of those… I couldn’t be more wrong!
HEO stands for health extension officer. They’re pretty much like physician assistants where they get to act as a physician in the remote areas, but they’re better off as they don’t work under the licence of a doctor and they’re autonomous just like a nurse practitioner but with a far greater scope of practice!
In Kokoda, there was two HEO working together, bouncing diagnoses & treatments off each others and combining forces through the medical rounds. My favourite part of their jobs though is by far that they get to patrol. One of the HEO trained so that she could be fit enough to patrol her whole catch-men area! Being in Kokoda, that means hiking through the mountains to bring health care to the most isolated tribes.
Unlike the physician assistant who will often practice in the urban areas, HEOs are trained in rural medicine and mostly practice in rural regions. Many of them will run Health Centres that are located miles away from urban centres. It is expected that HEO will work in remote areas. This one HEO from Kokoda actually trained as an HEO and not as a physician because she wanted to practice in a remote setting and she knew that if she would have trained as a doctor, she would have been pulled in the urban centres. Now that’s dedication to the remote and isolated!