"Army of Māori nurses" needed to fix inequalities in health system

By D'Angelo Martin

Institutional racism is as relevant as ever for Māori Nurses.  Experts and those working towards becoming nurses have come together at the Indigenous Nurses Conference in Auckland to address serious concerns and issues they face daily.  The conference will focus on empowering and bolstering the Māori workforce. 

Sorrel Kemp, who is on her third year in nursing, shares her personal experience when it comes to the issue.

"We have been told we must use English and I cried, I went out to the back of the staff room and had a cry because, to me, that was my patient's first language."

Some nurses say that they've had to dilute their tikanga and whakaaro Māori in order to be successful in their program's curriculum.

"We can no longer express that freely so we've been told that our cultural norms [don't fit the curriculum]," says Kemp.

Naomi Waipouri, who is a first-year graduate says, "The processes did not adhere to Māori tikanga, to the values that we had learned during our time that we were studying.  It was just really mamae."

New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku says, “The system, in general, has beaten down our confidence so we want the conference to be about ‘fire in the belly’ and we're proud to be Māori, advocating for the health of the people and the communities who most need it."

“The theme of the conference is 'Raising an Army of Māori Nurses', which harks back to words spoken by Māori politician Apirana Ngata early in the 20th Century who called for such an army.”

The 300 nurses who attended the conference have given the statement life. 

"We know what works is 'by Māori, for Māori, with Māori'," says Nuku.

While Māori remain over-represented in poor health statistics, Māori nurses currently only make up 7% of the total workforce in the country.

“Back in the 1900s, with the onslaught of epidemics killing Māori they raised an army of Māori nurses to go out there and work in the community.  We need to be doing that again now because our people are dying at the same rates from non-communicable diseases such as heart disease,” says Nuku.

A key point of discussion at the hui will be the Wai 2575 inquiry and the Waitangi Tribunal’s recommendations calling for a complete redesign of New Zealand’s primary health system to better meet the needs of Māori.

“A particular issue for us is the 25 percent pay disparity for nurses working in Māori organisations compared to those working in district health boards.”

A report released by the Ministry of Health last month highlights concerns among Māori over a perceived lack of District Health Board accountability and a lack of funding to achieve health equity for Māori.

The report said the ministry should focus on collaboration and co-ordinated action moving forward.

Tāmaki MP Peeni Henare, who was present at the conference, acknowledges that change is needed.

"Within the coming months, a plan and a strategy will be put in place to make sure these issues are non-existent in the future," he says.