12 Aug 2015

Māori health educator wins PM's award

12:40 pm on 12 August 2015

A Māori educator has been recognised with a prestigious Prime Minister's award for her efforts to improve the health of tāngata whenua.

Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama and Minister Steven Joyce.

Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama and Minister Steven Joyce Photo: SUPPLIED

Suzanne Pitama, director of the Māori Indigenous Health Institute at the University of Otago's Christchurch campus, received the Supreme Award for tertiary teaching excellence at Parliament on Tuesday evening.

She teaches student doctors and nurses to gain a better understanding of Māori tikanga and has set up protocols that help them in turn redress the health inequities between Māori and non-Māori.

Ms Pitama, of Ngāti Kahungunu, said she grew up with a strong sense of social justice and worked as a child psychologist before becoming a teacher where she has created new methods of training medical students.

"Times are changing at university and we are looking more for transformative exciting learning environments so what we've done is designed different ways of teaching Māori health, including using simulated patients and hybrid models.

"We have used different assessments techniques to try and assist us, to see if the students are able to take the theory and put them into practice, and being able to provide a safe environment for them to do that so they feel competent to take what we do in a simulated clinic into the wards and into real life.

"Every year, my fifth year students run free community screening, and for the last couple of years we've done that within kura kaupapa Māori, so they've been able to do screening clinics for children and adults using Te Reo Māori.

"Even though none of my students to date have been fluent in Te Reo, they've been able to transform their practice so they can work confidently in that environment.

"That's really exciting for our students and us, but also for our children in kura kaupapa to be able to see that they too could become doctors and that's providing inspiration for our upcoming workforce."

Suzanne Pitama leads her medical students onto Onuku Marae, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury.

Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama leads her medical students onto Onuku Marae, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury. Photo: SUPPLIED

Speaking before the ceremony, she said it would be an honour to receive it.

"If I was awarded the Supreme Award, then actually I think that would be a really nice accolade to the University of Otago's medical school for actually taking a calculated risk in providing space and time for a non-traditional field of medicine," she said.

"It would be a tribute to the medical school and their commitment to the Maori health curriculum."

Her achievements include writing and filming instructional videos for doctors and students when working with tāngata whenua.

Ms Pitama's accomplishments were also recognised with a second award in the Kaupapa Māori Category, worth $20,000.

"It's been so amazing to know that I'm going to have the honour of receiving one of the 12 national awards. That's an accolade not just to my work but the work of my team who have supported me and also championed their own areas at the medical school," she said.

"I'm pretty overwhelmed - that being in a non-traditional curriculum component of medicine is being acknowledged in this way is really exciting.

"Māori health teaching within medicine is emerging as a discipline and as a field, and so for the academy to acknowledge and celebrate tertiary excellence in this emerging field is really exciting."

She said her form of teaching was the beginning of a new way of helping Māori improve their health, by doctors and nurses having more effective behaviour when communicating with them as patients.

"It heralds the place of tertiary education. It's always been about transmitting knowledge, but also the development of transforming behaviours and also not just of individuals but also empowering individuals to think about how we can change systems and processes to contribute to addressing Māori health inequities."

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