The ‘brown veneer’ of Māori health research

Researchers from the University of Auckland’s medical school are calling on their colleagues to step up and give Māori health the consideration it needs and deserves. Teuila Fuatai reports

Ignorance of Māori health is limiting the effectiveness of research that should be benefiting New Zealand’s indigenous communities, researchers from the University of Auckland say.

The perspective, outlined in an article in the latest edition of the New Zealand Medical Journal, comes from a seven-strong group of Māori researchers at the university’s faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

The article highlights how a “narrow view” of health research - which fails to account for the relationship between research work, health policy and Māori health outcomes - perpetuates health inequity in New Zealand, specifically disadvantaging Māori.

“Health researchers are the people - usually academics in universities, though they are also sometimes in the community - who do research that seeks to improve health outcomes, services and our understanding of health,” article co-author and associate professor Papaarangi Reid said.

While providing an explanation of how research could potentially impact Māori, referred to as “responsiveness to Māori”, was a standard requirement of research funding proposals, not all researchers understood the purpose of it.

“For example, they would have to say: ‘We’re researching asthma, and asthma is a major health issue for Māori, and then give prevalence and incidence [rates], hospitalisation and the cost to Government of asthma. They also show there are inequities and that they want to improve them,” she said.

There will always be a few who want to just put a bit of a ‘brown veneer’ on it

- Papaarangi Reid

At the moment, most researchers tended to focus on the “science” behind a proposal, which often resulted in the absence of a thorough analysis of the impact of potential research for Māori, and Māori health outcomes.

Part of this related to the competitive nature of health research funding, as well as the lack of understanding among the majority of researchers of Māori health, Reid pointed out.

In the 12 months to June, the Health Research Council (HRC) - the agency responsible for allocating Government funding for health research - had a budget of $90 million. Of the applications it received for research funding, only about 10 percent were successful.

“At the time when they’re [researchers] writing their project, they know … it’s very competitive and the most important thing on your scoring is that you’ve got good science,” Reid said.

“So they spend all their time focusing on making sure they’re writing their question, and developing the research proposal part, and less time on responsiveness to Māori - yet it’s quite important.”

Changing that approach required a shift in both the researcher’s perspective, and the funder.

More emphasis had to be placed on assessing how well research findings could be rolled out in the community, and the practical implications of that research for Māori, and Māori health outcomes, Reid said.

The health research community also needed to drastically increase Māori representation in its workforce and find better ways to engage with Māori communities.

“If we get workforce development, we’ll have more Māori health researchers in all of those groups and labs, and we’ll have more ability to impact on research generally.

“There will always be a few who want to just put a bit of a ‘brown veneer’ on it, but there are those researchers who really want to do good in this area, and this [article] is helping give them a process to work through,” Reid said.

Professor Kathryn McPherson, HRC chief executive, said addressing Māori health inequities was a priority for the council - which set aside about 10 percent of its budget for projects led by Māori.

“We also aim for Māori contribution [and] representation on all our assessing committees. That said, we are currently reviewing our process to make sure we are doing what we can to advance Māori health research, capability and benefit for Māori,” McPherson said.

The council, which expected outcomes from the review in the New Year, also had a Māori Health Committee which oversaw funding of grants targeted at Māori health and career development.

Reid and her co-authors are part of the University of Auckland’s Tōmaiora Research Group, which focuses on Māori health.

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