A University of Otago researcher wants to improve the quantity and quality of life for Māori with cancer, and he’s just been awarded nearly $500,000 to identify strategies to do so.

Dr Jason Gurney, an epidemiologist and senior research fellow at the University of Otago, Wellington, is one of two researchers who has just received a 2018 Māori Health Research Emerging Leader Fellowship. These awards are managed and awarded jointly by the Health Research Council and the Ministry of Health.

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.

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

“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 with these cancers. Importantly, he aims to propose key social and health service investments required to improve outcomes for Māori, as quickly as possible.

The second $500,000 fellowship was awarded to Dr Reremoana (Moana) Theodore, co-director of the National Centre for Lifecourse Research and senior research fellow with the Department of Psychology, University of Otago. The experienced lifecourse researcher plans to examine the link between educational exposures and health outcomes for Māori.

Lifecourse research, which follows people’s lives over time, has shown that what happens from early life has an impact on long-term health and wellbeing. “Lifecourse research aligns with Māori worldviews that are expansive in nature and take a long-term view – 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.

Mr Stacey Pene, HRC senior manager of Māori health research investment, says both these fellowships will contribute to a healthier future for Māori.

“We’re committed to achieving health equity for Māori. These fellowships not only build our knowledge of Māori health issues and an evidence base for future social investment, but they help build leaders and mentors within the Māori health research workforce.”