It is hoped a new Māori Health Authority will reduce the huge disparity between Māori and non-Māori in our health system. By Aroha Awarau.
I started my journalism career at a community newspaper in central Auckland. The most frequent stories I was sent to cover were about people who lived to 100.
I attended many centenary birthday parties at rest homes and family dwellings and even went to a party for 100-year-old twins. It wasn't until I attended a handful of these events that I realised I had never celebrated this milestone with my Māori elders.
I waited for the day when I would attend the marae for the 100th birthday of a local kaumātua, but that call never came. That's when it dawned on me that this was just one of the results of Māori having the worst health outcomes in Aotearoa. I never had the chance to celebrate one of my own reaching 100 because we die much younger than other cultures.
Māori men have a life expectancy of 73 and women 77. That's respectively seven and six years less than the rest of the population. Māori also die at four times the rate of non-Māori from cardiovascular disease and are more likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes, lung cancer, arthritis, asthma and several other serious conditions.
These statistics are not new, nor are the attempts by the current and previous governments to address the inequalities. But the health reforms announced in April may prove to be a game changer. An independent Māori Health Authority will be set up next year to give Māori tino rangatiratanga or self-determination over their health. The authority will have commissioning powers and a group of iwi leaders and Māori health experts will choose who governs it. Māori will play key roles in governance and planning and in designing and monitoring services.
Time will tell if this "by Māori, for Māori" approach will reduce the inequalities in our healthcare. There's also a shortage of local doctors based in communities with high Māori populations. More than half of the country's rural doctors are international graduates, which means many of our whānau are being seen by medical professionals who may not understand or empathise with our cultural values. How this primary healthcare is delivered and finding ways to encourage more Māori to become doctors will need to be addressed, too.
The announcement of a separate Māori Health Authority has, of course, been met with opposition. National leader Judith Collins called for it to be scrapped, describing it as "separatist", and former National and Act party leader Don Brash said it was a "disaster" that would cause a division between "two different peoples".
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It never ceases to amaze me how critics of positive strategies to improve the health outcomes for Māori cannot see why such actions are needed. I'm not expecting those who oppose to comprehend why these inequalities exist and connect the disparity between Māori and non-Māori to a colonial history that has deeply rooted causes.
It's a fact that Māori die younger and are more likely to suffer from a raft of serious health issues, and the impact on families is devastating. I need only look at my own family and the pain and suffering we've endured because of illness and premature death to know why changes are needed. In my immediate family, I've had my mother and three brothers die from cancer-related illness. To put it in perspective, my father has had to bury not only his wife but also three young-adult sons. I liken it to a father during wartime having to bury his boys in quick succession.
I grew up attending funerals, which were as common as birthdays. It wasn't until I was much older that I realised attending funerals and seeing your loved ones die from illness were not as common in other cultures. Hopefully, the new health authority is a positive step towards improving the quality and longevity of Māori lives.