Working with Maori Communities
Ten Minutes with Dr Matire Harwood (PhD, MBChB) Ngāpuhi
Doctor Stories
March 13, 2020

Ten Minutes with Dr Matire Harwood (PhD, MBChB) Ngāpuhi

When she was just seven years old, Matire Harwood’s grandfather told her she would become a doctor. She is now widely recognised for her contribution to Māori health and research into health inequities between indigenous and non-indigenous people.

The Auckland University clinical researcher and GP has devoted her career to investigating conditions like cardiovascular disease, asthma, stroke and diabetes, in relation to Māori health. In 2017, her work was recognised with a $25,000 fellowship in the L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science programme, which she is using to further research on the effects of indigenous-led interventions for long-term conditions. She has served as a member of the Board and Māori Health Committee at the Health Research Council and has worked with the Health Research Council, Ministry of Health and the Healthier Lives National Science Challenge, to improve outcomes for Māori living with diabetes.

Māori make up more than 15% of New Zealand’s population, but as little as 6.1% of doctors identify as Māori. However, this number is increasing and that’s in part thanks to doctors like Matire blazing a trail.

We talked to Matire about her current work, what inspires her and what’s next.

What are you currently working on?

Oh, lots! On Mondays and Tuesdays, I’m at the University of Auckland teaching Māori health and supervising seven Māori clinical PhDs. I’m also working with a Māori research group in Auckland, studying equity in cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and how we can improve outcomes.

On Fridays, I work as a GP looking at heart health in a 95% high need community, 80% of which are Māori or Pacific Islander.

The L’Oreal fellowship weaves all of this together – if we can achieve equity, everyone benefits. I’m trying to improve wellbeing and bring everything into one piece of research.

What’s next?

I’ve done lots of itsy-bitsy roles between being a mother and gaining my PhD, so I’ve not had a chance to do a medical Fellowship and I’d like to do that in the next few years.

I’m keen to continue gathering evidence, to show people that [what we are doing] is effective, to put a passionate voice behind the data and to add not just narratives, but stories and examples.

What do you think is important for medical students to learn today?

When I studied, we had one hour of Māori Health studies. Medical students coming out now are much better prepared!

Now we need to talk about the culture of our health system. Students really get that – they question problems and question the hierarchy. I think we need to support them in that.

What advice would you give a doctor who’s mid-career, to better serve Māori and Pacific Islander communities?

I like the idea of ‘cultural competency’ – but we also need to be more empathetic to culture.

You also need to realise the power you hold and reflect on the position you have around planning for a patient, particularly in a hospital. Audit your care. Many doctors say, “we treat everyone the same” but you’ll find there are always differences because you are always going to relate to those similar to yourself more easily. Audit you care by those who are often discriminated against.

Medical leaders have the power to help, the power to empower people!

What do you love about being a doctor?

I love everything! I feel like a Polly-Anna! The choices you have as a doctor are amazing. I love the teaching, the research, the practice – I love the variety.

Practice grounds me. Sometimes I think I’m having a bad day – my coffee didn’t taste right this morning – then I meet people carrying on despite their troubles with a huge smile.

The L’Oreal Fellowship has been lovely, it’s really ‘shining the light’ and I feel that with the change in government things are changing, patients are more hopeful and feel valued.

Your grandfather told you to become a doctor when you were very young – do your kids want to become doctors too?

Hell no! My step-daughter is a registrar, so it’s been great to talk to her and see her do that. But my son faints at the sight of blood. My youngest is only seven and she’s thinking about becoming a doctor or a Katy Perry – it’s too early to choose between the two.

This article was originally published in July 2018

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Matire Harwood interview with medworld

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