Community approach needed to address Pacific health decline Friday, 1 November 2013

Unless Pacific communities are consulted on health policy, Pacific health will continue to deteriorate, a Victoria University of Wellington academic warns.

Dr Aliitasi Su'a Tavila from Victoria's Health Services Research Centre, says New Zealand's health statistics confirm that the Pacific population is at risk.

"The health of the Pacific population has been lagging behind others in New Zealand for the last 60 years and it looks set to get worse unless we do things differently," she says.

As an academic health researcher, Dr Su'a Tavila offers a non-medical perspective, which indicates that the issues reach beyond the medical model of care.

Taking into consideration Pacific people's unique world view, she suggests a robust partnership amongst health professionals, policy makers and the community is the right approach to ensure health priorities are achieved.

"Unless communities agree and strategise for themselves then we are only perpetuating what has failed in the past," says Dr Su'a Tavila.

Dr Su'a Tavila undertook her postdoctoral research internationally where she analysed and examined other Pacific nations' health strategies to identify barriers and gaps which may contribute to the declining health of the Pacific population globally. One of the key issues Dr Su'a Tavila looked at was the availability of data to support health strategies for Pacific peoples.

"There is often a lack of such information, yet it is a really important part of any strategies to improve health," she says.

Dr Su'a Tavila recently completed a five-week fellowship at the University of Hawai'i to examine the health strategies of native Hawaiians. She says the University's Department of Native Hawaiian Health had established a successful partnership with the wider community, focused on the prevention of non-communicable diseases.

One of the highlights of her fellowship was her introduction to the MA'O Organic Farm. This farm offers a variety of community-based and education programmes for young people and adults. Its strategic focus is to address five main aspects of its local population's welfare and wellbeing: out-of-school youth, sustainable economic development, agriculture, health and Hawaiian culture.

The uniqueness of the MA'O Organic Farm initiative was the reintegration and re-establishment of the local community through family-based activities, nurturing and growing their youth and their families within an environment of communal ownership and pride. Dr Su'a Tavila believes this initiative could be introduced in New Zealand as a pilot programme to help address many social issues around Pacific and non-Pacific population.

"Involving the community made a difference and increased the native people's willingness to participate in the health programme," she says.