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Leadership in physiotherapy – breaking down barriers

“Inherent in my culture is that we look after our loved ones and so I always liked the idea of working in health. My love for sport made me land with physiotherapy although as it turns out I didn’t actually become a sports physiotherapist.”

Alexis Cameron is a physiotherapist and the Rangatahi Programme Coordinator at Auckland DHB. Her experiences as a practitioner of Māori and Pacific Island descent have informed her work and her career-path. In her role with the Rangatahi Programme, Alexis helps pathway Māori and Pacific youth into careers in health. It’s part of her long-term drive to reduce inequities and improve health outcomes for Māori and Pacific communities.

One of Alexis’ drivers is the need to overcome institutional racism – the built-in preference for a particular cultural outlook – in New Zealand’s health system. “Amongst the growing body of evidence of racism within the health sector, it would be remiss of us to think institutional racism doesn’t pertain to our profession. Also, if we know that culture, particularly for Māori is an independent determinant of health status, do we have a depth of understanding on bi-culturalism to be advocates of equity?”

As it stands, those from a non-Pākehā background must develop capability to successfully navigate a Pākehā western way of doing things. It means things like putting aside the strong sense of humility that’s ingrained in your culture when you’re put up against a panel of people and expected to sell yourself for a job. It means having to find a practical way through the sense of nakedness that comes with hands-on physio training. The key is to walk in both worlds, to not lose your own culture on the way because that’s the thing that makes the difference in outcomes for the people from your culture that you treat.

“When I first graduated, it seemed nonconformist to interact with Pacific patients as a Pacific clinician with the same shared cultural values. I would act in a way that didn’t fit my culture, and I have learnt that being true to my cultural heritage enables Māori and Pacific patients to bring their whole selves into our interactions, and with it greater engagement with their own treatment. Not doing this potentially creates a barrier to them achieving holistic wellness.”

But things are changing, and Alexis’ work is a part of that change. By recognising these barriers she’s able to help Māori and Pacific youth overcome them. Her advice to them is frank. “Value your cultural intelligence and know that this is an asset as workplaces strive to become more diverse. Look to develop a strong sense of self and identity. Our Māori/Pacific communities need us as Māori/Pacific clinicians authentic with our worldviews.”