Creating policy to help tackle the impact of racism on Māori health system is the aim of Natalie Talamaivao who is one of 61 health researchers to win a Career Development Award today.

Natalie Talamaivao, a senior advisor in Māori Research at the Ministry of Health (MoH), was one of the award winners announced today by the Health Research Council to help foster and sustain New Zealand’s health research workforce.

More than $10 million in grants was awarded overall to 61 researchers across a broad range of disciplines ranging from $5000 summer studentships to Advanced and Postdoctoral Fellowships worth up to $500,000.

Talamaivao, who is about to take up a research role with the University of Otago, Wellington, said there was already clear and robust evidence showing racism was an important health determinant for Māori and an underlying cause of ethnic inequalities, both in New Zealand and internationally.

“We’ve got a significant body of evidence that’s been developed and it’s at the stage now where we need to think about how to translate it into action.”

Talamaivao will be working with Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pōmare (the Eru Pōmare Māori Health Research Centre), and received a $131,284 Foxley Fellowship to investigate policy options for action.

Nineteen Māori health researchers also won awards  (one postdoctoral fellowship six PhD and four Masters scholarships, one research development grant and eight summer studentships) including reproductive health researcher Matire Ward who won a PhD scholarship to work with Dr Janet Pitman on helping bring immature eggs to maturity in the laboratory (in vitro).  Ward, of Te Matarahurahu hapū and Te Kotahitanga Marae in Kaikohe, is working on improving the still rare practice of maturing an egg after removing it from the ovary rather than afterwards and the research will use cow eggs to test what nutrients, and at what concentrations, should be used for optimal egg development.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Associate Dean (Pacific) at the University of Otago, Wellington, was one of 22 Pacific health researcher to gain awards (four fellowships, four PhD and two Masters scholarships, a Pacific knowledge translation grant and 11 summer studentships).

Sika-Paotonu gained a $192,000 Te Patu Kite Rangi Ariki Fellowship to investigate the potential of using a blood test that detects small fragments of cancer tumor DNA (ctDNA)  to help detect cancer at an earlier stage. Tumors are usually picked up using biopsies, but Dr Sika-Paotonu said this could be a significant barrier to cancer care in Pacific countries where access to healthcare was limited and the cancer burden was growing.

Pipeline between research and policy

HRC chief executive Dr Kath McPherson said with her background, Talamaivao was well-placed to open an important pipeline between research and policy.

Talamaivao says people experience racism in a range of ways from the interpersonal level to the structural level and there is clear evidence it affects health outcomes.

“Experience of racism impacts on participation with the health sector. In New Zealand it has been linked to lower breast screening and cervical cancer screening for Māori. It also has quite profound effects on mental health and other health outcomes,” she says.

Talamaivao has spent more than a decade as a senior advisor in Māori health at the Ministry of Health. As part of the fellowship she will also be involved in three research projects focused on racism and health. These include the impact of racism on the future health of adults, Māori health workforce experiences of racism, and the effects of racism on rangatahi (youth).

“I am hoping that my experience with the policy and Government sector will help me facilitate more of an action-focused stage as the next step.”

Other countries, such as Canada and Australia, already have anti-racism policy frameworks and the aim is to develop a New Zealand-specific one. Such frameworks typically cover a wide range of measures from workforce development and anti-racism training programmes, to changes at a strategic level.

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