New Zealand’s medical students not reflecting our diverse communities

Māori and Pacific medical students are still underrepresented in our medical schools, as are students from low socioeconomic and rural backgrounds, according to a new analysis of New Zealand medical student data from 2016-2020. The authors say that relying on overseas medical graduates, rather than training more doctors locally, will further dilute representation of these groups in the medical workforce. While there have been longstanding and ongoing efforts to address these inequities the authors say more is needed, and suggest changing selection policies to factor in the impact of low socioeconomic status, Indigenising institutional ways of knowing and being, and funding more New Zealanders to study medicine.

Journal/conference: BMJ Open

Link to research (DOI): 10.1136/bmjopen-2023-073996

Organisation/s: University of Auckland, University of Otago, AUT University, Curtin University

Media release

From: University of Auckland

Barriers persist for Māori and Pacific medical students

New research shows Māori and Pacific medical students remain underrepresented in Aotearoa New

Decades of efforts have boosted the numbers of Māori and Pacific doctors, but new research shows
these ethnicities remain underrepresented in the country’s medical schools.

The proportion of Māori doctors in New Zealand has increased from 2.3 percent in 2000 to 4.7
percent in 2023. However, this remains well below the proportion of Māori in the population at 16.5

Similarly, the proportion of Pasifika doctors is slowly increasing, to 2.2 percent of all doctors, but
below the Pasifika population of 8.2 percent.

The study also found poverty is a barrier to studying medicine across all demographic groups, and
rural-background students are underrepresented in medicine.

“To have the greatest positive impact on health outcomes, the population of doctors as a whole
should mirror the society which they take an oath to serve,” says Professor Warwick Bagg, acting
dean of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

“To achieve this, those who are enrolled in medical school should broadly mirror the demographics
of the people they will ultimately work for.

“Moreover, medical education institutions have an obligation to improve the health of the
communities they serve.”

“The underrepresentation of Māori doctors and Pacific doctors has contributed to profoundly
negative impacts for these populations,” the researchers state. “For example, in New Zealand, Māori
life-expectancy is reduced by more than seven years compared with non-Māori.”

To help address the medical workforce shortfall, both universities instigated equity policies, starting
in the 1950s at Otago and 1970s at the University of Auckland, which are starting to shift the dial.

At the University of Auckland, in 2022, 30 percent of the cohort admitted to study medicine were
admitted via the MAPAS equity-targeted pathway.

At the University of Otago, the number of Māori graduates has increased markedly over the past
decade, with the graduating proportion of Māori students now at or above population parity at
around 15 percent.

A declining rural medical workforce is also problematic in New Zealand. Research has found medical
students from rural and regional backgrounds are more likely to return and work rurally or in the

“In order to provide high quality care to Māori and New Zealand's diverse communities. It is
essential that medical schools continue to recruit from those same communities,” says Professor
Peter Crampton, of the University of Otago.

“We know top quality healthcare is reliant on a suitable mix of people in the health professions. So,
for example, top quality healthcare for women is dependent on there being a representative mix of
women in the health workforce. And same applies in the context of rural, in the context of Pacific or
Māori and so on.”

The paper is one of a series seeking to understand the extent to which health students mirror society
in the expectation this will flow through to the workforce and to quality healthcare.

Earlier this year, a study of first year students across all healthcare professions found a systematic
underrepresentation of students who identify as Māori and Pacific, and students who come from
low socioeconomic and rural backgrounds. See British Medical Journal Open.

Compounding a lack of representation in the medical workfoce is the number of doctors imported to
work in New Zealand, says Professor Bagg.

“To address the issue of too many doctors being imported from overseas, the Government must
fund more New Zealanders to study medicine,” Professor Bagg says.

The researchers conclude that selection policies need to be reviewed to ensure that communities in
greatest need of doctors are prioritised for enrolment into medicine. In particular, the impact of low
socioeconomic status should be factored into selection decisions.


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