One Pacific researcher believes Pacific women have unique strengths as mothers, but there’s a need for Aotearoa New Zealand’s healthcare system to be more responsive towards them.

The chief executive of a Pacific-focused research firm says understanding cultural factors is one of the keys to enhancing people’s interactions with the healthcare system.

Jacinta Fa’alili-Fidow is the founder and CEO of Moana Connect, and has ​​extensive leadership and management experience in health research, public health and Pacific wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.

MAS sponsored Jacinta’s keynote speech at the inaugural NZ Women in Medicine Conference, which took place in Wellington in May 2022. The conference’s theme was ‘Kotahitanga me Manaakitanga – Celebrating strength in our unity, supporting our community’, an angle that was reflected in Jacinta’s presentation on access to maternal healthcare for Pacific communities in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Understanding pregnancy support

Jacinta shared statistics that showed Pacific women access pregnancy support at lower rates than other groups.

“One of the stats we are most concerned about is that only a third of Pacific women we surveyed had seen a midwife or a lead maternity carer during their first trimester, and then only about two thirds of them by the third trimester. Some were just turning up to give birth,” she says.

One reason behind this is that the Pacific women surveyed didn’t see pregnancy as being “sick”.

“The view is: ‘pregnancy is a natural thing, so why would I need to see a clinician about it? I only go to my GP if I’m sick.’ And for some women, they were having their third or fourth child, and by this point they were familiar with their symptoms.

“We need to promote the idea that going to a midwife or lead maternity carer doesn't mean you’re sick – it’s about monitoring, and giving you tips and advice along the way.”

Balancing the positives

While some of these statistics like this are worrying, there are also many positive cultural factors that influence parenting in Pacific communities, says Jacinta. 

“Research shows that Pacific mothers are 2.7 times more likely to say that they are ‘completely close’ to their infant compared to European mothers, and more than half of Pacific mothers live with extended family or other adults, which means they have greater family support.”

Most Pacific mothers are very knowledgeable about their culture, and their children have the highest immunisation rate for vaccines before four-years-old, compared to the wider population.

Despite the need for healthcare initiatives that better serve Māori and Pacific communities, she believes these projects are still held to higher regulatory standards than “mainstream” initiatives.

“There’s so much great work happening in the Māori and Pacific health space, but sometimes it feels like it happens in a parallel universe because mainstream health still has such a stronghold on strategies and commissioning.

“Māori and Pacific projects still have to explain ourselves a lot more than others do.”

A key concept in Moana Connect’s work is trust, says Jacinta.

“Trust is seen as this fluffy thing that has nothing to do with systems and processes, but it actually plays a really important role.

“For example, when we set up qualitative research, if you create an environment where people feel comfortable and create conversations where they trust you, they’ll share a lot more than they would with someone they’re suspicious about. If you can set up a process where people will engage more, and trust the service, they’ll vote with their feet.”

An equitable foundation

MAS Foundation heads Dr Julie Wharewera-Mika (Tangata Whenua) and Mafi Funaki-Tahifote (Tangata Tiriti) believe MAS’s support of Jacinta’s mahi is a natural fit.

MAS Foundation is now supporting Moana Connect’s work with a grant. The organisation’s mahi approach closely aligns with the Foundation’s mission to take a partnership-based approach to addressing health and wellbeing equity in Aotearoa New Zealand, says Mafi.

“We were thrilled to introduce Jacinta Fa’alili-Fidow on stage at the NZ Women in Medicine Conference in May. Her approach to research centres and elevates the voices of Pasifika women, highlighting how our health system could and should be providing them with better maternal care,” says Mafi.

Julie says “Jacinta is a leader in culturally responsive research derived from Pasifika peoples, and from within Pasifika realities – past, present and future. Her work has the potential to contribute to a transformed more equitable system for our wāhine hapū, māmā and whānau.”

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