Ajay Kumar, BSc majoring in Pharmacology, BPharm (Dist). For the promotion of holistic healthcare and mentoring undergraduate students.
Getting pharmacy out of the pharmacy and engaging with the community to advocate for voices not always heard is a prime motivator for Ajay, who is working as a pharmacist in Porirua, alongside a new health promotion role for Arthritis NZ.
What was your reaction to receiving the award, and what does it mean to you?
It was a complete surprise! I was sitting with my partner at a café when I saw the email. We found the profiles of the previous 20Twenties recipients and we were amazed by their stories. I did genuinely feel quite proud. It's an honour to be recognised alongside past and present 20Twenties recipients for the work and vision we have in our fields.
What have you done since graduation and what are you doing now?
I finished uni in 2021 and since then have been finishing up my training as a pharmacist. I live in Wellington (not far from my hometown Palmy!) and my work is based in East Porirua. East Porirua is a diverse community with a large population of Pacific, Māori and Asian peoples. Being Fiji-Indian myself, I really enjoy being a part of this unique and vibrant community.
The transition out of uni can be a difficult one, however I am lucky to have a number of mentors around in the health space. I have been training at Cannons Creek Pharmacy under my boss Kas Govind, a true local legend, who has been a rock in the community for 30 years. Just across the road is Pacific Health Plus, an innovative GP clinic managed by Lee Pearce, who hosted me as an intern the summer before graduation. Outside our local health network in Porirua, engaging with the Pacific Pharmacist Association has given me a sense of community in the workforce.
Part of my work in Porirua is an exciting new role with Arthritis NZ that meshes together gout healthcare, health promotion and research. Gout is very common in East Porirua and our project is all about partnership with the community. If future health interventions are to be successful, they must be workshopped with the community. To put it simply, the community itself must define the problem and offer the solution. Our work hopes to facilitate this process. We want to understand the true-lived experiences people have with gout and with their health services. We want to know, “what do you think will help?”.
The true challenge of this work was getting healthcare, health promotion and research to fit together neatly. I believe a unique aspect of the project is that every step of the research journey facilitates in itself a natural education session as well as a Q&A opportunity with a health professional. Based on patient engagements, we can identify gaps in gout management (for example, barriers to medicine adherence or disease knowledge) and address it in individually tailored ways. Arthritis NZ is an awesome organisation to work with. We've gone in a new direction and they deserve a lot of praise for their willingness to experiment. I believe the work we are doing could be replicated for other major health conditions.
Aside from the gout project, I have been getting involved in a number of community health events such as Te Rā o te Raukura, the largest Māori health event in the Wellington region. I've really enjoyed getting out to these events! It's a completely different experience engaging with people in these settings and it's great to network with other types of providers. I am a firm believer that pharmacy needs to come out of the pharmacy. There is a lot of potential for growth in healthcare and I think the pharmacy skill set is incredibly valuable (and incredibly under-utilised at present!).
I do miss Dunedin, so I keep a finger in Otago-life. After tutoring and mentoring as a student, I now run a numeracy and study skills support programme for Pacific Health Sciences First Year (HSFY) students. A lot of love goes into this work. I am happy to say that every Pacific HSFY student has a copy of my study guide, Pacific Physics, and that a bunch of students make it to my Sunday morning Zoom tutorials!
What inspires and motivates you to work in the areas you are involved with?
My main motivator in health is equity. New Zealand is a great place but we don't always acknowledge the reality of history for all Kiwis. What we have is a system that for many people is foreign, doesn't entirely encapsulate our views of health, and can be difficult to trust for a whole range of reasons past and present. There is a lot more to healthcare than what is addressed by a traditional western health system. Absorbing elements from our various communities can only improve the health of all Kiwis collectively. As a pharmacist, I consider myself an advocate for medicines and healthy living. As a brown health professional, I would like to be an advocate for the unique experiences of people who aren't always heard. We should all live long, healthy, happy lives.
What were the highlights of your time at Otago, and has it helped you in your career?
Dunedin is a beautiful city and nothing can match the energy of North D. My time in Dunedin was filled with so many awesome memories and opportunities. Friendships with all sorts of people, with all sorts of backgrounds, interests and goals. A wide base of learning, especially during my BSc Pharmacology/Toxicology years. A sense of community, especially through Pacific Island Research and Student Support Unit. Most importantly though, studying at Otago provides you with a great space and a heap of time to think! Otago is an awesome place to have fun, figure things out and then launch yourself into a career.