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Friday 26 June 2020 8:40am

Dame Karen Poutasi – honour a reflection of teamwork

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Dame Karen Poutasi

After getting over her initial amazement at being appointed a Dame for services to education and the State in the Queen's Birthday Honours, Dr Karen Poutasi CNZM says she sees the award as a tremendous honour which reflects the teams she has had working around her in her various roles.

“It's through teams that you achieve things. It's as big an honour for them as for me, you don't achieve on your own,” she says.

Dr Poutasi has held several top-level government positions, including Chief Executive of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) from 2006 to April 2020 and Director General of Health from 1995-2006. She is currently the Commissioner of the Waikato District Health Board.

Despite her career in health and education, while growing up in Gore she originally wanted to be a vet. “I have a great fondness for animals, and for nature.”

However, towards the end of primary school, she decided medicine looked interesting and carried on in that direction through high school and on to the University of Otago. She met her husband Samuelu Poutasi at Otago “over some lab mice”, and graduated MB ChB in 1973.

“Otago was a great period for me; I had a tremendous class.”

She was, however, aware of the small number of women in her year, and the lack of cultural diversity, and says “it's really good to see how far the University has moved on this”.

A desire for equity of access and opportunity for all has been a central motivation in Dr Poutasi's work.

“Diversity is a really important aspect for me. In health if you don't have diverse options for patients, they don't feel culturally safe.”

She has affiliations through her family with the Samoan community and connections with the Māori community through her children and their partners. Her rural background also brings an understanding of small communities, and she has worked from the south of the country to the north.

“I can respect and value what different perspectives bring,” she says.

One of her lasting memories of her time at Otago is listening to the moon landing in 1969.

“We were doing an anatomy class and permitted to listen on transistor radios. That juxtaposition of learning through anatomy and the future world strikes me as being totally appropriate, but very memorable.”

After university, she and Samuelu did exactly what they were advised not to ¬- went overseas, and she achieved her registration in the UK. They had decided they wanted to travel before starting a family. “The really good thing about that was I had no trouble getting house surgeon jobs.”

On return to New Zealand, she gained her postgraduate Diploma in Public Health at Otago, and her first role was as Deputy Medical Superintendent at Dunedin Hospital.

“It was the beginning of my management career. I've been in management since and love it, there's a sense of doing things through people.”

Her final health role was as Director General of Health, a post she held for 11 years. During this period she helped produce the first pandemic plan and she says it has been interesting watching the basis of the plan; “keep it out, stamp it out”, underpinning the current New Zealand government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I've highly admired the delivery and sheer competence in managing a very complex situation where line of sight has been very difficult. I know they [Ministry of Health staff] are working frantically to get the information they need and ensure the information is shared across the country.

“Full congratulations to those who have worked so hard, and also to New Zealand.”

To add to her health management experience, Dr Poutasi completed an MBA at Otago in 1984. She then received a Harkness Fellowship to study at Harvard School of Public Health where she completed a Science Masters in Health Services Administration.

“What intrigued me then was the ability of New Zealanders to step into the Harvard environment and to do that readily.

“I think I was an average student who worked hard. It's a tribute to New Zealand universities, and to Otago, that I found no difficulty at all stepping up and pulling through A level results, which told me New Zealand is pretty well positioned – we have good people and good systems. We do need more equity of outcomes, but internationally we stack up.”

Her move in 2006 to NZQA was to her a logical extension of her commitment to public health, equity and diversity.

“I see education and health as both integrally important and very closely aligned to the health of individuals and the population – they are critically important to everybody.”

“I see education and health as both integrally important and very closely aligned to the health of individuals and the population – they are critically important to everybody.”

She particularly wanted to ensure there were no barriers to access.

“It's no good building a hospital on a hill and expecting people to get to it. We need to get the barriers out of people's way, particularly at the primary and community level. This applies across education and health. It's fundamental to people having a good life.”

At NZQA she has worked to make the systems for NCEA, Scholarship, University Entrance and quality assurance in the non-university tertiary sector “robust and credible”.

“We talk about a global digitally-connected world – which COVID has brought home,” she says. “I would ask if we care about learners what do we need to change, and how do we support them?”

Putting NCEA online and promoting learning in a digitally-enabled manner, to increase access and allow people to function in a digital world, has been an important focus for her.

“We've worked hard to get different subjects online, and to get exams online. If you have a good robust system online, the flexibility is going to be really helpful.”

Micro-credentials to enhance lifelong learning and allow people to change jobs without needing to complete a three or four-year course was another priority.

“They allow people to transfer skills from one workplace to another. It's critically important people can move and change roles and transfer their skills and competency. Are any of us doing now what we thought we'd be doing when we left school?”

Dr Poutasi is also Deputy Chair of the Crown-owned company Network 4 Learning, which provides high-speed broadband, network support and fibre security to schools, and played a role during lockdown in supporting student devices at home with the Switch on Safety filter protection.

Her current role as Commissioner at the Waikato DHB is a “fairly large task” and began with securing a new chief executive for the organisation with the aim of lifting performance and enhancing access. Again, she says “it is all about teams”.

Work to improve Māori and Pacific health rewarded

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Mr George Ngaei

Invercargill surgeon Mr George Ngaei (MB ChB, 1968), has been made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) in the recent Queen's Birthday Honours. This award follows his appointment as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) in 2015.

“Being second time around, I was kind of prepared. I was asked to submit an updated CV a few months before, so I smelled a rat, but it wasn't until the letter came that it sunk in!”

Mr Ngaei received the award for services to health and the Pacific community. Born in Rarotonga, at age 12 he was awarded a scholarship to attend Napier Boys' High School.

“I was the first Pacific student to attend the school, and it was a totally strange and new environment.”

Despite the culture shock and other hurdles, he gained University Entrance and says the Otago that he arrived at in the early sixties was much different to that of today.

“Today there's a Department of Pacific Studies and there's all sorts of support available for the Pacific Island students. In my time I was on my own.

“Last year I was invited to a couple of the 150th celebrations. When I went to Otago in 1962 there was myself and two other Pacific students. There was no cultural, or family support. When I went back last year there were more than 100 students plus their family members in the auditorium, and I was blown away. It was so exciting and great to see.”

Mr Ngaei attended the then Carrington Hall, and later went flatting with other medical students.

“Although we played hard, we certainly supported each other and studied very hard as well,” he says.

He says he's pretty much been in Southland since returning from postgraduate studies in the UK in the 1970s, having been asked by his mentor the late Professor Alan Clarke to accept a joint Otago Medical School Southland Hospital Board appointment.

“My brief was to set up under and post graduate teaching of surgery at Southland Hospital. I was then to return to the Department of Surgery in Dunedin Hospital.”

Having chosen to stay in Southland, he's now semi-retired, but still does quite a bit of charitable work with the Pacific Island community.

Mr Ngaei received his award for his many years of work to improve the health outcomes for Māori and Pacific people.

“It's because cultural differences and attitudes manifest themselves in the many forms of racism that remain in New Zealand society and institutions. It affects access, opportunity and the performance of Pasifika students.”

Mr Ngaei has returned to Rarotonga at least on an annual basis, at his own cost, to support the medical profession in areas where skills are either not available or are in short supply. He has performed surgeries at the local hospital, often bringing his own team from New Zealand to assist. He has been Chair of the South Island Pacific Providers Collective since 2014 and is a committee member of the Auckland-based Cook Islands Health Network Association. In 2002 he established a Pacific Island Specialist Nursing Service in collaboration with the Pacific Island Advisory and Cultural Trust (PIACT) and has been Chairman of PIACT since 2007. He was a representative for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) on the Southland Medical Foundation from the 1990s until 2018. Mr Ngaei was previously elected to the New Zealand Committee of the RACS and is a member of the Board of the Auckland-based Cook Islands Development Agency New Zealand.

He had always planned to return to the Cook Islands, and says he and Bobi (his wife) are spending more and more time in the country of his birth.

“I enjoy being here and I enjoy being in the Cook Islands, and with modern technology you can keep track of both places.”

Mr Ngaei says with the current pandemic and the election cycle being in September, the investiture of his award has been postponed to November.

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George and Bobi Ngaei

Professor John Nacey CNZM

Professor John Nacey

Professor of Urology and former Dean of the University of Otago, Wellington, Professor John Nacey, has been made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) for services to health and education.

“I feel very honoured to receive the award, but I am also very aware of the large number of really talented people I have had the privilege of working with over many years, and who have in no small way contributed to this end result,” says Professor Nacey.

Professor Nacey graduated from the University of Otago in 1977. After completing specialist training in urology, which included a role as Chief Resident in Surgery at Flinders University Medical Centre in Adelaide, he returned to take up a joint hospital and university role in Wellington.

He was appointed Dean and Head of Campus in 1998, and during his 10-year tenure, supervised a major building programme to improve the school's teaching and research facilities. In 2001, he oversaw the opening of the School of Radiation Therapy.

During his time as a lecturer at the University, Professor Nacey chaired the Faculty Curriculum Committee and oversaw the implementation of structural changes to the oversight and delivery of medical education and the modernisation of the curriculum.

Professor Nacey has been one of the leaders of the Wellington Prostate Brachytherapy Group since 2001 and chaired reviews of the New Zealand Cancer Registry in 2010 and 2013.

He was appointed Chair of the New Zealand Task Force on Prostate Cancer in 2012 and later became Chair of the Prostate Cancer Awareness and Quality Improvement Programme.

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