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Centre for Pacific Health

Centre for Pacific Health logoThe Centre for Pacific Health was launched in 2018 to house the research and teaching activities of the Va’a o Tautai. It is now home to a dedicated team of Pacific and non-Pacific researchers working in areas of importance to Pacific communities in New Zealand and internationally.

Alongside research, the Centre for Pacific Health also provides leadership in teaching Pacific health across Health Sciences professional programmes, the Bachelor of Health Sciences, and other areas of health curricula where Pacific perspectives are important.

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About Pacific health

Pacific health is a holistic concept that encompasses broader ideas on well-being to encompass physical, mental, and spiritual aspects. With more than 20 different cultures captured under the umbrella of ‘Pacific’, there are unique approaches to health that mean health care, health systems and health services can be enriched with further understanding of Pacific-specific approaches to health.

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Study Pacific Health

There are opportunities to study Pacific Health at undergraduate level and as a postgraduate degree. Understanding health and context of Pacific communities in NZ and internationally is valuable for working in the health sector. The Division of Health Sciences has a set of Pacific Curriculum Learning Outcomes which outline the aspirations for student learning for our graduates.

Teaching staff

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Undergraduate study in Pacific health

Bachelor of Health Science (majoring in Pacific and Global Health)

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Undergraduate students of the Bachelor of Health Science degree studying Pacific and Global Health.

The Pacific and Global Health major focuses on the effects of globalisation, economic pressures and changing societies on the health of Pacific peoples in New Zealand and in neighbouring Pacific countries. There are two dedicated Pacific health papers in the degree:

  • PACH 201 Pacific Health: New Zealand and the Pacific Region
  • PACH 301 Pacific Health: Advanced Applied Knowledge

Within these papers students learn how to effectively engage with Pacific people and their communities to develop and create positive solutions within the context of health care and provision at a population level.

The course covers historical, social and cultural contexts to Pacific health, and strategies for understanding and addressing health inequities and key health issues. Students explore the application of Pacific belief systems, values, principles and ethical approaches related to health.

Graduates majoring in Pacific and Global Health will have a global perspective of health and well-being with the skills and knowledge necessary to serve the needs of Pacific people and communities and support Pacific and mainstream solutions to improving health.

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Division of Health Sciences: Health Professional Programmes

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Medical students attend a lecture on Pacific mental health and well-being presented by Centre for Pacific staff.

Teaching staff from the Centre for Pacific Health deliver teaching about Pacific health to health professional students across the Division. This includes an expanding curriculum in Medicine, Dentistry, Physiotherapy, and Pharmacy programmes which builds foundational knowledge about Pacific communities and applied skills that will help students better serve Pacific patients and their families. Pacific teaching is immersive so we are privileged to be able to share the experiences and expertise of our local Pacific community as part of our teaching.

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Physiotherapy students learning traditional Cook Island dancing.

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Postgraduate study in Pacific Health

Postgraduate Study in General / Rural Remote Medical Practice

Va’a o Tautai is supporting a cohort of doctors in Pacific Island countries to gain postgraduate qualifications in general / rural remote medical practice. Doctors based in the Cook Islands, Samoa and Niue are currently studying towards a postgraduate certificate or diploma in Rural and Provincial Hospital Practice (RPHP), through the postgraduate rural medical programme. The largely distance-taught nature of the papers allows doctors to remain in-country while studying. Other facilitators are clinical synergy with rural medicine and linking to established medical training programmes.

For the Cook Islands the Otago papers form the academic component of a vocational GP Fellowship programme. Five Cook Islands Ministry of Health (MOH) doctors have now completed the Certificate in RPHP (PGCertPRHP). One Cook Islands MOH doctor has completed the Certificate in Clinician Performed Ultrasound (Cert CPU). Niue Ministry of Health is developing a similar training programme with their first doctor starting on Otago postgraduate papers next semester.

Helen Heimoana, Ruonamakin Rui and Allamanda Faatoese image
From left: Dr Helen Heimoana and Dr Ruonamakin Rui both from Cook Islands Ministry of Health, with Dr Allamanda Faatoese, in Christchurch at the 2019 Trauma and Emergencies paper residential workshop.

Niue Ministry of Health staff and colleagues at Niue Foou Hospital image
Niue Ministry of Health clinical staff (Dr Eddie Akauola Chief medical Officer, 2nd from left) at Niue Foou Hospital 2019.

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Postgraduate research students

The Centre for Pacific Health also supports and encourages our talented emerging scientists with research opportunities as part of a wider Divisional commitment to Pacific Health Research.

Dr Malama Tafuna'i

Funding: Health Research Council Pacific Clinical Research Training Fellowship

Malama Tafuna'i thumbSupervisors: Professor Rob Walker (DSM), Professor Diana Sarfati (UOW), Faumuina Associate Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga, Dr Rosalina Richards, Dr Ari Samaranayaka

Prevalence and risk factors for Chronic Kidney Disease in Samoan people

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) is recognised as a public health issue in New Zealand (NZ). Māori and Pacific people in NZ carry this burden with a 3-5 times greater risk of developing End Stage Kidney Disease and commencing subsequent Renal Replacement Therapy than NZ European. Pacific people have been found to be 2.62 times more likely to develop CKD unrelated to diabetic nephropathy.

The prevalence of CKD in Samoan people has never been studied nor has the associated risk factors for its development been evaluated. This study proposes to compare and contrast the prevalence of CKD in Samoan people resident in New Zealand with Samoan people resident in Samoa. At the same time, it will look at the risk factors associated with CKD in Samoan people both in New Zealand and Samoa to try and understand any relationships between these and the development and progression of CKD.


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Faumuina Associate Professor Fa'afetai Sopoaga

Funding: Health Research Council of New Zealand

Tai Sopoaga thumbSupervisors: Associate Professor Jacques van der Meer, Professor Tim Wilkinson, Dr Shyamala Nada-Raja

Health and well-being of Pacific students in Health Sciences

This research seeks to explore and identify factors which impact on the health, well-being and success of Pacific students enrolled in University. The overall aim is to develop a better understanding about how to best support Pacific students to achieve their goals and aspirations. Participants are Pacific students enrolled in the first year of health sciences at the University of Otago in 2015 and 2016.


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Troy Ruhe

Funding: Health Research Council of New Zealand

Troy Ruhe imageSupervisors: Associate Professor Lynnette Jones, Faumuina Associate Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga, Associate Professor Debra Waters

The ‘Niu Movement’- Assessing the acceptability of a circuit-based physical activity intervention in Pacific Islands communities

The proposed research is a physical activity intervention that will take place in Cook Island communities of both New Zealand and within the Cook Islands. The development of a physical activity programme which comprises movements of traditional Cook Islands daily activities of food gathering and preparation has been piloted to test the feasibility and acceptability of such imagery.

The main aim of the study is to determine effective strategies to increase physical activity adherence within Cook Islands communities. This aim will be achieved through developing a validated strength-based model for Cook Islands health through the medium of physical activity incorporating Cook Islands values, belief systems and principles within a Cook Islands framework.


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Bradley Watson

Funding: University of Otago Scholarship

Brad Watson thumbSupervisors: Dr Brian Spisak, Professor Robin Gauld, Faumuina Associate Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga

Pacific leadership in New Zealand's health sector

This doctoral research explores the central tenet of what Pacific leadership is and how it is understood within the context of New Zealand and its health sector.

As a priority group in health, we as Pacific peoples are often well-sought after for employment opportunities at all levels of New Zealand’s health sector. Due to the strategic priorities around improving our health outcomes, we as Pacific peoples can sometimes be fast-tracked into leadership roles to support achievement of these strategic goals.

Our people are fully capable of these important roles, however, since the process to leadership does not necessarily follow the usual organisational timeline, there needs to be more understanding of the impact this has on leadership identity and skills, as well as leadership health and well-being. Additionally, we may hold leadership positions through our own cultural models that might not align with an organisational structure, and vice versa. These potential tensions also need to be understood more fully and this research attempts to contribute to our knowledge and cultural models of leadership as Pacific in New Zealand.


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Lesieli Prescott

Funding: Better Start National Science Challenge Masters Scholarship

Supervisors: Dr Rick Audas, Dr Jesse Kokaua, Dr Rosalina Richards

What happens to Pacific Island youth with mental health conditions: Evidence from the New Zealand Integrated Data Infrastructure

In New Zealand there is currently an over representation of Pacific youth suffering from mental health conditions (MHCs). Despite this, little is known about the possible determinants leading to these conditions and furthermore, their association to other health outcomes. Using data extracted from the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), this quantitative study retrospectively researched young Pacific people aged 10-14 years old who had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), mood disorder, anxiety, conduct disorder or substance disorder.

The aims of this research were to describe the diagnosis of these specified MHCs among Pacific youth in New Zealand; To explore the likelihood of deprivation and migration as determinants for the onset of these MHCs; And to examine whether there was an increased risk between the onset of these MHCs and the development of short-term health outcomes, measured by the occurrence of ambulatory sensitive hospitalisation (ASH) conditions.


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Ryder Fuimaono

Ryder Fuimaono thumbSupervisors: Rob Walker, Faumuina Associate Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga, Tim Wilkinson

A pilot study: Does a novel genetic variant, highly expressed in Samoans, explain their increased propensity to develop Chronic Kidney Disease?

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) continues to increase globally. In New Zealand, a community-based prevalence study demonstrated that Pacific peoples had a 2.56 fold higher risk of CKD, controlling for diabetes. Likewise Pacific people (predominantly Samoan) in NZ with a family history of ESKD have an increased risk of nephropathy independent of diabetes, suggesting a genetic component.

Recent studies have identified the CREBRF p.Arg457Gln gene variant prevalent among Samoans, predisposes against obesity, yet protects against diabetes, but did not associate with established CKD. The aim of this pilot study is to investigate the possible association between the CREBRF p.Arg457Gln gene variant (A allele), obesity, and early prediction of kidney damage, as identified by proteinuria in a local Samoan population.

175 Samoans from a local church community in Upolu Samoa, were recruited for the study.

This Samoan community survey identified that 34% of the sample had positive proteinuria, and 47% were either severely or morbidly obese. When comparing with the CREBRF p.Arg457Gln gene variant, there was a 59% increased risk of proteinuria, and 84% increased obesity risk among those with the A allele, compared with those homozygous for G allele. However, findings were not significant due to small sample size. Further studies with a larger sample size is needed to explore this association.


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Dr Melbourne Mauiliu

Melbourne Mauiliu thumbSupervisor: Dr Rosalina Richards

Pacific Health Professionals’ and Researchers’ Experiences as Pacific Advisors

Health research is one of the mechanisms by which these health inequities can be addressed, with Pacific communities being identified as priority populations. In response, research teams will often seek to include Pacific as collaborators or advisors on projects. This can be a challenging role, both in terms of encouraging teams to align their work with Pacific research guidelines and the great responsibility to be the voice of more than 22 different Pacific groups. This research will explore experiences of senior Pacific colleagues who have represented Pacific views within various fields of health-related research.

Within the next 10 years there will be an influx of new young Pacific health professionals who will undoubtedly be approached to participate in decision making scenarios. Learning from experiences of those who have served within these contexts will be of help. The information obtained will contribute to preparing future Pacific Health professionals in building their confidence in cultural competency, their ability to make sound and informed decisions as well recognise where and how to seek counsel on matters of Pacific Health.


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Centre for Pacific Health research

Research is an important tool in creating change to support health systems to better meet the needs of Pacific communities by placing Pacific voices and perspectives at the centre of research and acknowledging the strength and innovation that exist in communities.

Coastal People: Southern Skies

Coastal People: Southern Skies is a research collaboration that connects communities with world-leading, cross-discipline research to support transformative change to rebuild coastal ecosystems.

Centre for Pacific Health researchers are significant contributors to this collaboration.

Research staff

  • Grettel Williams, Administrator
  • Professor Pauline Norris
  • Dr Rosalina Richards, Senior Lecturer
  • Faumuina Fa'afetai Sopoaga, Associate Professor
  • Tracie Leckie, Assistant Research Fellow
  • Dr Kim Cousins, Research Fellow
  • Dr Jesse Kokaua, Research Fellow
  • Dr Allamanda Faatoese, Research Fellow
  • Shih Yen Chang, Assistant Research Fellow
  • Sellina Sa’u, Assistant Research Fellow
  • Albany Lucas, Assistant Research Fellow
  • Dr Molly George, Research Fellow
  • Dr Kati Blattner, Senior Lecturer
  • Dr Vanda Symon, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Dr Malama Tafuna'i, Research Fellow
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Research projects

Mental health and well-being of Pacific youth in higher education

Funding: Health Research Council of New Zealand

Ola Malohi logo well-being image Lead: Faumuina Associate Professor Fa'afetai Sopoaga
Senior Research Fellows: Dr Shyamala Nada-Raja, Dr Ari Samaranayaka
Assistant Research Fellows: Tracie Leckie, Sellina Sa'u

There are at least 30,000 Pacific students in tertiary institutions. This research seeks to support and enhance the mental health and well-being of Pacific students in tertiary institutions. We are seeking to determine the protective and resiliency factors, as well as other factors which impact on the health and mental well-being of Pacific students. We will explore students access to services, their experiences and expectations including barriers to using health or other support services. Furthermore, we wish to determine the role of access to services on their mental health, well-being and academic progress.

First year pacific student? Join the Ola Malohi student community and help us improve support for students. From 1 April 2019 you can join our study, email

Contact us

Web Ola Malohi Research Group

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Exploring the needs of Pacific families affected by age-related cognitive impairment

Funding: Brain research New Zealand – Rangahau Roro Aotearoa (BRNZ)

Vanda Symon thumbDr Vanda Symon.

Leads: Dr Vanda Symon, Professor Pauline Norris, Dr Rosalina Richards
Researchers: Dr Nicola Kayes (AUT), Talai Mapusua, Professor Leigh Hale (Physiotherapy), Michael Lameta

Pacific populations in NZ are ageing, but little is known about Pacific people’s experiences of or views about cognitive impairment. With the increasing population of older people, the number of Pacific people with dementia is predicted to increase. In 2016, 2.3 % of NZers with dementia were Pacific peoples, and by 2038 this projected to be 3.3%.

There is reason to suspect that the incidence of dementia may be higher in Pacific peoples, due to the presence of higher risk factors such as socioeconomic deprivation, educational level, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, stroke, smoking, alcohol intake, and head injury. There is some evidence that Pacific peoples are diagnosed with dementia at a younger age, and present at a more advanced stage of dementia.

The principal aims of our research would be to explore the needs of Pacific people and families affected by age-related cognitive impairment. This aim of this project is to find out what information and services are currently available and used by Pacific people and families affected by age-related cognitive impairment, and to explore unmet needs for information and services.


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Health implications from education for Pasifika people and their families

Funding: Health Research Council of New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowship

Jesse Kokaua thumbDr Jesse Kokaua.

Lead: Dr Jesse Kokaua
Researchers: Dr Rosalina Richards, Dr Moana Theodore, Professor Richie Poulton

This study seeks to investigate to what extent health outcomes, particularly mental health outcomes, among Pasifika are related to education, and to tease out whether this is a direct or indirect association.

The first project will look at health outcomes of graduates from University study in New Zealand. The second will look at health outcomes for Pasifika families associated with education.

While studies have looked at the socio-economic or health benefits associated with education, few have looked at health in the context of the former. And none have been found that seek to view these from behind a Pasifika lens to investigate generational differences in health outcomes and their association with education.


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Sleep and well-being among Pacific children and adolescents

Funders: Health Research Council Pacific Project Grant

Rose Richards thumbDr Rosalina Richards.

Lead: Dr Rosalina Richards
Researcher: Dr Molly George

Ensuring children and adolescents receive sufficient good-quality sleep is critical for their physical and emotional health. We currently know little about sleep in Pacific children and their families and how to best support good sleep / wake patterns within Pacific contexts. The overarching objective of this project is to inform the development of effective sleep interventions by capturing Pacific perspectives about sleep, health and interventions.

The first study will involve interviews with Pacific parents, exploring intergenerational changes in sleep patterns, associations between sleep and well-being and appropriateness of current sleep measurement and intervention strategies. A second study will use key informant interviews with Pacific health and educational professionals to explore the role of sleep in health / education outcomes for Pacific families and explore ways to maximise the effectiveness of sleep interventions for Pacific communities.


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Tailoring academic support for postgraduate distance education students in the Cook Islands and Pacific region for the Otago School of Medicine

Funding: University of Otago Teaching Development Grant

Kati Blattner thumb 2019Dr Katharina Blattner.

Researchers: Dr Katharina Blattner, Dr Rosalina Richards, Dr Kiki Maoate, Dr Allamanda Faatoese, Frances Brebner, Dr Mark Smith, Dr Rory Miller

The purpose of this project is to strengthen academic support for University of Otago postgraduate distance education students located across the Pacific Region.

Doctors based in the Cook Islands began studying at the University of Otago under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Cook Islands Ministry of Health in 2014. Their course of study is the Rural Postgraduate Programme (RPGP), Dunedin School of Medicine. The RPGP embraces the virtual campus concept with papers largely distance taught to a dispersed student body by a dispersed faculty.

Key facilitators of the programme for the Pacific Island Country-based students include distance learning, allowing local practitioners to stay in-country; linking to an established medical training programme; and clinical practice synergies. This project intends to investigate the Pacific Island Country-based student experience within the postgraduate rural programme and virtual campus, and identify effective and sustainable solutions to better support these students and the staff involved.  We also aim to identify other opportunities to build and strengthen academic capacity in Pacific Island Countries where postgraduate students are currently based.


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Randomised controlled trial of the impact of removing prescription charges for people with low incomes and high health needs, on hospital bed-days

Funding: Health Research Council of New Zealand

Pauline Norris thumbProfessor Pauline Norris.

Lead: Professor Pauline Norris
Researchers: Dr Kim Cousins, Dr Simon Horsburgh, Dr Alesha Smith, Shirley Keown, Dr Ari Samaranayaka, Professor Carlo Marra, Dr Marianna Churchward,Shih Yen Chang

Although prescription charges in New Zealand are low compared with many other countries, many people report that they cannot a ord the medicines they need. We plan to conduct a randomised controlled trial of prescription charges to see whether removing charges would improve people’s health.


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Health services research

Funding: Division of Health Sciences Strategic Initiative

Pauline Norris thumbProfessor Pauline Norris.

Lead: Professor Pauline Norris

This project aims to enhance health services research in the Division of Health Sciences. This includes research on what kind of health services people want and need, and how to organise, fund and improve health services.


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