By Dave Sharma (on behalf of Elaine Huang, Keerthanraj Vaidyalingam, Ved Mishra and Jorja Tater
It is safe to say that our five-day journey through schools and medical practices across the Northland region has etched profound impressions upon us, as we reflect on our drive to contribute to the enhancement of rural healthcare in our respective fields in the near future. Our week began with a three-hour drive up to Springbank school in Kerikeri, with three sessions including almost 100 students that day. From early on we were left impressed by their health knowledge (which we considered to be advanced at a high-school level) and their willingness to participate and learn.
Through their interactions with us, we were able to ascertain a significant cohort of students eager to pursue careers in healthcare. At day’s end, students approached us, expressing gratitude for the information and workshops that had heightened their aspirations for university education, which we were really touched by. Later that day, we had the privilege of visiting Kawakawa Medical Centre, where we engaged in enlightening discussions with Dr. Tamara Birchall and her exceptional team. We delved into the rewards and challenges of rural healthcare careers, gaining insight into the pivotal role of community engagement in driving positive change. It became apparent that healthcare is not an isolated journey but a communal endeavour, encompassing patients, practitioners, their families, and the wider community. Their personal journeys through healthcare underscored the non-linear nature of this field and emphasized the possibility of joining the healthcare sector irrespective of one’s background and educational journey, which we reminded ourselves to emphasise in our future presentations. Our visit also brought insight into the extent of access disparities experienced by the Northland rural communities. One of the biggest insights was on the local population’s health literacy and perspectives on health. There is a level of acceptance and normalisation regarding healthcare access, and patients tend to visit clinics when their conditions are urgent or severe. The clinic covered a large population of patients (1700 patients), some with significant barriers to access (i.e., transport).
The second day took us to Kaikohe Christian School in the morning, where we conducted a session for 40 students in years 9-13, each at different stages of planning their educational journeys. Interactions with this school reinforced the profound significance of holistic well-being, as students posed questions that transcended physical health and ventured into the realms of mental, emotional, social, and spiritual aspects. We were left quite stunned by the depth of their questions and their willingness to participate, which demonstrates the transformative potential of programs like Hauora Taiwhenua in sparking interest in healthcare. Without knowledge of healthcare service models such as Te Whare Tapa Wha, students were able to demonstrate their understanding through questions asked, revealing their aptitude as future healthcare professionals. Similar enlightening conversations unfolded at Northland College, leaving an indelible mark on our perspectives and instilling confidence in the cultural competence and humility of these students as future healthcare representatives in their communities. Visiting the Broadway Medical Centre in Kaikohe that afternoon further exposed the challenges of patient access compounded by staffing shortages. However, both clinics underscored the vital role of a multidisciplinary healthcare workforce, where professionals often assumed multiple roles to bridge the staffing gaps (e.g., nurses doubling as healthcare assistants). The compassion and cooperative spirit of team members provided wraparound support for clinicians working in a stressful environment.
The third day provided a respite for us, allowing the opportunity to explore Kaitaia, Kaikohe, and Kerikeri. While we marvelled at the breathtaking scenery and enjoyed the pleasant weather, our travels also brought into focus the rough roads, sparse healthcare facilities, and considerable distances between residences. Conversations during lunch and dinner centred around the critical issue of accessibility and how its absence often led to patients presenting with advanced co-morbidities. Again, this highlighted the purpose of why we were here and geared us up for the fourth day.
On the fourth day, we ventured to Opononi Area School on the picturesque Hokianga Harbour. The town’s charm and the students’ enthusiasm mirrored those we had encountered in the first two days. Despite our brief interaction, their high level of interest was unmistakable. Notably, they understood the communal spirit that healthcare practitioners in rural communities can harness, as they collectively shared their experiences of a 20-kilometer journey to the nearest healthcare facility in Rawene. Their understanding of the value that a healthcare practitioner could add to their community ultimately inspired hope and made them actively engage in the workshops offered. Similarly, at Kerikeri High School, we encountered students with a clear determination to pursue healthcare careers, with a significant proportion expressing interest in paramedics, optometry, and medicine, driven by their awareness of the healthcare challenges their communities currently face.
In summary, our five-day sojourn in Northland schools as part of the Hauora Taiwhenua program was nothing short of transformative. Our engagements with students, practitioners, and the broader community served as a poignant reminder that true wellness is a collective endeavour, transcending boundaries, and differences. As we continue to reflect in the days, weeks, and years to come, there is a collective sense of hope that we can somehow contribute to the promotion of well-being in these communities in the near future. We also hope that our interactions have ignited a sense in the students we encountered to pursue careers in various healthcare disciplines, affirming our belief in the potential of these future healthcare representatives to make a profound impact in their communities.