The rise and rise of revolutionary health hero and Kaitaia GP Lance O'Sullivan has led to him being named New Zealander of the Year.

Yesterday the man who has driven a back-to-the-future health model that combines traditional general practice, free school clinics and proactive in-community initiatives said he was "hugely honoured" to be named the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.

Prime Minister John Key presented the award to Dr O'Sullivan at a gala event in Auckland on Wednesday night.

Accepting the award, the doctor said he was "proud to receive this award as your husband, your brother, your father, your mate".


Yesterday he told the Northern Advocate: "I feel very privileged, and the night was about celebrating some incredibly inspirational people.

"There are hundreds, thousands, of people out there doing good work who don't get recognised. Everyone in that room had given so much to their community and their country, and yet we were only a very small percentage of people who are making a difference.

"We don't do what we do for recognition, but when nights like this happen it helps us go forward for another day, another week, another month, another year."

Dr O'Sullivan and his wife, Tracy, established a low-cost health clinic, Te Kohanga Whakaora (The Nest of Wellness), to make basic healthcare more accessible.

His efforts to improve Maori, children's and underprivileged people's health include the school-based Manawa Ora Korokoro Ora (Moko) health services for more than 2000 children in the Kaitaia area, a low-cost medical clinic and the Kainga Ora (Well Home) project.

That housing improvement project sprang from the realisation that improving people's homes was more effective in improving their health than writing prescriptions for recurring respiratory and other illnesses of poverty.

His railing at things that hold a community down included challenging 2013 mayoral candidates to reduce poverty-related illnesses in the Far North by cutting the number of pokie machines in the district.

The Kaitaia community health projects that could work throughout New Zealand were showing tangible benefits, and offered equally tangible long-term advantages, far beyond turning around some worrying health and poverty statistics, he said. For example, the in-school clinics were treating sick children sooner than might otherwise be the case, and healthy children did better at school, he said.

Kaitaia Primary School principal Brendon Morrissey said the Moko scheme was a "win-win" that should be rolled out everywhere in New Zealand.

He said school attendance had gone up, the children were healthier and happier and parents felt secure knowing there was on-the-spot medical attention.

"Lance thoroughly deserves this recognition," he said.

Dr O'Sullivan said his work was not about getting awards, but he was happy to be a reason the Far North got some distinction as well as attention on community health projects.

The father of seven said he was proud to be raising his children in Northland knowing they had a sound outlook and future, and he wanted the same for all Far North Maori children.

The New Zealander of the Year accolade follows a chain of gongs in recent years for the public health crusader. Last year alone they included Public Health Champion and a Sir Peter Blake Trust leadership award.

"Lance O'Sullivan's passion, drive and unwavering commitment to eradicating poverty-related illnesses are exactly the kind of qualities we look for," said chief judge Cameron Bennett. "He's a fine choice to carry the mantle of 2014 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year."

The other two contenders for the top award from 250 nominations were Maori educator Dame Dr Iritana Tawhiwhirangi and CatWalk Spinal Cord Injury Trust founder and trustee Catriona Williams. They topped seven other semifinalists including All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, lawyer Mai Chen and former Christchurch mayor Sir Bob Parker.