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Inequitable Access to Healthcare in New Zealand

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Inequality is defined as the existence of a disparity in degree, size or circumstance. A healthcare system refers to the structure of organization of personnel, resources, and institutions that deliver services of healthcare to target populations. This acts as the populations’ health determinant and is subject to the influence of other social determinants. In an ideal society, inequalities in its healthcare system are nonexistent. However, the world we live in is not ideal. In all nations, there are different social situations for different sections of the populace that result in unfair but preventable differences in health situations (Harris, Cormack and Stanely, 2013). In the end, the differences create disparities in the general well-being and life expectancies among the population. A good healthcare system endeavors to attain fairness in society by providing distribution of healthcare fairly (Kai, 2003). Endeavoring to attain health equity means advocating for all social groups to have equal opportunities of accessing healthcare, with a mind of improving the accessibility situation for those groups who had fewer chances for the same. However, amid the rapid growth of globalization in recent decades, there has been a rapid growth in healthcare system inequalities across all countries including New Zealand.

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The New Zealand Healthcare Demographic

In New Zealand, chronic illness is the biggest causer of mortality, morbidity, and inequitable health outcomes. Out of a total of 4.7 million people, 68% European ethnic groups with 15% being Māori making the largest minority followed by Asians and Pacific Islanders at 9% and 7% respectively (Statistics New Zealand, 2017). For these groups, the healthcare access barriers include language barriers; inadequate appropriate information access; institutional racism; variant health system procedures and beliefs; negative attitudes by some health personnel; inadequate culturally sensitive services pertaining to cultural and religious needs; previous negative experiences with social and health services; and fears on health care entitlement (Kai, 2003).

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Reasons for Inequalities

The situation for both the Māori and Pacific people points towards the social determinants of health concept that comprises of four major areas of inequalities; namely discrimination, lifestyle factors, socioeconomic factors and access to healthcare.

Socio-Economic Factors

According to the WHO (2009), indigenous people who were colonized and lost land, as a result, have the worst health status in their own countries. In New Zealand, the trend applies to the Māori and Pacific people who have had longstanding and significant healthcare inequities compared to the Pākehā (Harris, Cormack and Stanely, 2013). In the 1700s the Māori had a higher life expectancy than Britons at 30 years. The onset of imperialism in New Zealand changed this as it came along with diseases like tuberculosis and measles increasing the mortality rates among the Māori. The extent of the imperialism stretched into the culture of the nation as it caused discrimination against the Māori language and regulation of the native’s rights (Oda and Rameka, 2012). This socioeconomic context and loss of land by the Māori led to them having poor health status.


Discrimination has a very close relation to various poor health factors with a clear link being exhibited in the poor health of the Māori and racial discrimination against them. In the nation, Māori experience the highest prevalence of physical and verbal racial discrimination as well as ethnicity based unfair treatment. They also report the highest number of racially discriminatory occurrences with healthcare personnel which makes it clear that the design of the healthcare system in the country negatively affects their health status. A good illustration would be the slower treatment procedures that the minorities receive accompanied by longer waiting times. The doctors are also less likely to refer them to a specialist which is the reason for Hill et al. (2010) findings that although the Māori have a higher chance of contracting cancer, at 9%, they are 77% more likely to lose their lives than the Pākehā. Apparently like in most OECD countries, the healthcare system is based on equality but lacks equity as there is no room the cultural needs of the minority groups and the unique health perspective that they bring to the fold.


Furthermore, due to the feeling that their cultural health perspective is undermined by the dominance of the Pākehā in the sector, the Māori display more resistance towards trusting the system and engaging in the services (Hill et al., 2010). When this is coupled with the other existing obstacles that the minority groups face in the likes of socioeconomic deprivation, it makes healthcare nearly unaffordable for them as well nearly inaccessible. In a survey conducted by the ministry of health, there were over half a million adults in the nation who could not access GP because of cost in 2013 (Ministry of Health, 2015). Other services have varying inaccessibility with mental healthcare being largely outpatient and community based. Lead Maternity Carers are the ones who provide maternity services with three quarters of them having qualified as midwives only (Cumming et al., 2014). Accessibility to dental care is also wanting as the funding offered for the minority communities only allows for full dental care of children while adults can only get limited treatment in cases which are emergencies (Cumming et al., 2014).


A good healthcare system endeavors to attain fairness in society by providing distribution of healthcare fairly. However, there has been a rapid growth in healthcare system inequalities across all countries including New Zealand. For both the Māori and Pacific people the inequalities are largely due to four major areas; namely discrimination, lifestyle factors, socioeconomic factors and access to healthcare. These are the reasons for the existing healthcare inequalities that affect the different minority subgroups in New Zealand which impede the ability of the groups to access and extensively utilize health care. Nevertheless the implementation of the intervention methods discussed in the review of literature will go a long way in improving the accessibility, affordability and utilization of health services by the minority groups and therefore the reduce the disparities of the system.

The New Zealand healthcare system


The Māori who are New Zealand’s indigenous people came to the islands from eastern Polynesia around 700 to 1200 years ago (Anderson et al., 2006). The first documentation of the natives contact with Europeans was in 1769 during the historical expedition by James Cook that triggered the start of the colonization of the islands by the British. In 1840, the Māori through their chiefs accepted an alliance with her Majesty’s Empire by signing the Treaty of Waitangi which was written in both Māori and English. At the time, there were 100,000 Māori and 2000 settlers and the treaty aimed to safeguard the rights and protections of the natives. The two different versions of the treaty exhibited substantive differences resulting in different obligations and rights interpretations for the different concerned parties. In the end, the promises that were the basis for the formation of the treaty were not kept (ANDERSON et al, 2006). As of the turn of the 20th century, the Māori like any other indigenous populace in the world had become a minority under colonization.

They lost most of their land that had heavy negative effects on their ability to produce food and they were immersed in abject poverty, discrimination and marginalization. The demographic situation on the Island changed with around 800000 settlers by far outnumbering the 40000 or so natives in 1901. As indigenous people of New Zealand, the best instrument the Māori could have used to keep and protect their rights was the treaty of Waitangi (ANDERSON et al, 2006). The longstanding disparities in the health status of the non-Māori and Māori population show that the health rights of the natives were not protected as the treaty dictated. In the 70s, the treaty started receiving greater awareness. This was due to the growing frustration by the Māori and their aspirations to get equity in the health system. The result was the recognition of the treaty as a fundamental point in the Māori -government relationship. However, the treaty is yet to be incorporated in social policy legislation and there still exists a substantive gap between its acceptance and translating its aims into real healthcare status gains for the Māori.

The Structure of the Healthcare System

In New Zealand, the healthcare system comprises of a mix private and public owned institutions offering a wide scope of health services that have undergone radical reshaping in the last 4 decades. The 80s saw Area Health Board entities on regional levels offer bulk hospital funding with their services excluding primary healthcare. Crown Health Enterprises came into being in the 90s (Barnett, Smith and Cumming, 2009). These were state-owned hospitals and firms that were set up and worked with Regional Health Authorities to offer services that also encompassed primary healthcare. At the end of the millennium, the restructuring focused on the government side of the system with DHBs now integrating hospitals into bodies that offer funding. Populations now rely on DHBs to provide, plan, manage and fund health care services including primary care, aged care, and public health as well as non-governmental health services by Māori and Pacific providers. The DHBs rely on Primary Health Organizations (PHOs) to fund primary health care provision (Barnett, Smith and Cumming, 2009). Many of the PHOs were started between 2002 and 2005 and are tasked with working with the local populations with the aim of reducing inequalities in the health sector through the improvement of service provision and accessibility. The idea was to shift the allocation of primary healthcare share from a fee-to-service endowments package at the specialist level to a main funding of the PHOs through capitation model (Barnett, Smith and Cumming, 2009)

The Ministry’s Position

In its attempt to fulfill the health and disability needs of the Māori, the He Korowai Oranga utilizes three key articles as its basis. These three articles are the Treaty of Waitangi articles which are articulated as Governance; Maori control; and Self-determination and Equity. The idea driving the utilization of these articles is the notion that even though it is the responsibility of the government on the population’s behalf to provide healthcare, the needs of the Māori in terms of healthcare and disability can only be met by the inclusion of the whole sector. The governance article articulates the development of strategies to aid in appropriate gains in healthcare and disability services through collaboration with Māori communities (Manatu Haurora, 2017). Basically, it advocates for the involvement of Maori in the development and implementation of health policies. Maori control and self-determination advocates for the involvement of the Māori in all of the sector’s levels starting with planning, decision-making, development and finally delivery of disability and health services. The last article of equity requires the safeguarding of the cultural values, concepts, and practices of Māori while ensuring they get access to the same level if not better healthcare services. The adoption of these articles resulted in the advancement of disease control and health promotion in Māori communities through the establishment of initiatives like the Māori led providers.


The adoption of the Waitangi Treaty in healthcare policies regarding Māori and their healthcare status went a long way in improving their status and reducing the disparity existing between them and other groups. Adoption of the three articles was especially significant as it resulted in many positive changes for Māori healthcare model. Although there is little evidence on the effectiveness of the strategy, it is clear from the literature review that the opposite is true; reduced participation, protection and partnering with Māori results in poor health outcomes for them which does not align with the Treaty of Waitangi.

1. Anderson, I., Crengle, S., Leialoha Kamaka, M., Chen, T-H., Palafox, N. & Jackson-Pulver, L. (2006). Indigenous Health 1: Indigenous health in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific. The Lancet. 367, 1775-1785. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(06)68773-4

2. Barnett, P., Smith, J. and Cumming J. (2009). The Roles and Functions of Primary Health Organisations.Wellington: Health Services Research Center.

3. Belich, J. (2001). Paradise Reforged: A history of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the year 2000. Auckland: Penguin.

4. Blakely, T., Tobias, M., Robson, B., Ajwani, S., Bonne, M. and Woodward, A. (2005). Widening Ethnic Mortality Disparities in New Zealand. Social Science and Medicine.

5. Crengle, S. (2007). The development of Maori primary care services. Pacific Health Dialog.

6. Cumming, J., McDonald, J., Barr, C., Martin., G., Gerring, Z. and Daube, J. (2014). New Zealand Health System Review. Wellington, New Zealand.

7. Dew, K. and Kirkman, A. (2007). The institutions of healthcare. In B. Deed (Ed.), Health in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

8. Ellison-Loschmann, L. and Pearce, N. (2006). Improving Access to Health Care Among New Zealand’s Maori Population. American Journal of Public Health, 94(4), 612-627. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2005.070680

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