Cancer disparities and the impact of education on long-term mental health are the focuses of two $500,000 Māori Health Research Emerging Leader Fellowships just announced by the Health Research Council.

Dr Jason Gurney, an epidemiologist and senior research fellow at the University of Otago, Wellington, has been awarded one of the fellowships (awarded jointly by the HRC and Ministry of Health) to look at improving the quantity and quality of life for Māori with cancer.

The second has gone to Dr Reremoana (Moana) Theodore, co-director of the National Centre for Lifecourse Research and senior research fellow with Otago’s psychology department who plans to examine the link between educational exposures and health outcomes for Māori.

Gurney says the disparities between Māori and non-Māori in surviving cancer strongly suggest there is unequal access to the best-practice cancer services that preserve life, and with his newly-gained fellowship he aims to confront those inequities.

It’s been estimated that Māori are 20 per cent more likely to develop cancer, but nearly 80 per cent more likely to die from it. There is also evidence that Māori patients with terminal cancer are more likely to experience poor quality of life and palliative care.

“I believe it must be a priority of our health system to achieve equitable health outcomes for Māori.” By helping achieve survival equity for Māori cancer patients, this fellowship could take us closer to that goal, he says.

Over the next four years he aims to identify cancers which require the most urgent attention in terms of survival outcomes, and to determine the extent to which survival, quality of life and palliative care factors are modifiable for Māori patients. He also aims, as quickly as possible, to propose key social and health service investments required to improve outcomes for Māori.

Dr Theodore says lifecourse research – which follows people’s lives of time to see how early life experiences impact on long-term health and wellbeing – aligns with Māori worldviews that take a long-term view of looking across time and spanning generations.

She says high-quality education, beginning in early childhood through to the highest levels of tertiary study, is associated with significant long-term health and social wellbeing benefits, but there has been little Māori-led lifecourse research in these areas to date.

Dr Theodore plans to identify the type and timing of key educational factors associated with positive Māori health outcomes. “The government substantially invests in the New Zealand education system. The proposed research can help inform how that investment may also impact on the health sector,” she says.

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