University of Otago appoints first wahine Māori as medical school Dean

3:36 pm on 4 December 2021

The newly appointed Dean of the Christchurch medical school says her appointment will help in the drive for equity in the health system.

Professor Suzanne Pitama

Professor Suzanne Pitama Photo: supplied

Otago University Professor Suzanne Pitama, who is the former director of the Māori Indigenous Health Institute, will take over as head of the university's Christchurch campus in February, the first wahine Māori to lead one of its medical schools.

Of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Whare descent, her résumé includes roles as a lecturer, chair of the Hauora Māori sub-committee and a Māori sub-editor for the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Pitama says she was encouraged to apply by her colleagues, and with changes coming to both medical education and the health system, she was looking forward to the challenges ahead.

"Our medical schools and our broader health professional courses all contribute to not just building the workforce but also creating the evidence that informs how we do things in Aotearoa.

"Some of that research in the past has really enforced systemic biases, and so we've got a really big place and I think a lot of space to catch up on."

Pitama said she was initially reluctant to apply for the role, but she did with with strong support from colleagues and other academics.

"My real focus is on Māori health equity and I think there's always a dilemma when you apply for a mainstream position whether that will distract from your kaupapa."

"My colleagues kind of highlighted that I could continue to advocate for Māori health equity in a different leadership position."

Pitama said universities and medical schools were becoming more introspective about their roles in the wider system, and overcoming entrenched biases.

"It's an amazing time to do it, because everything Māori feared around the vaccine rollout has occured. So there's good evidence that there's a need."

"We also have the opportunity with the health reforms as a medical school to actively produce evidence which advocates for Māori health advancement rather than the status quo."

"I think it is going to be a big job."

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