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Student seeking to improve the health of Pacific islanders

Canterbury student seeking to improve the health of Pacific island people

May 5, 2014

A University of Canterbury student wants to contribute to the improvement of Pacific health through his own experiences with physical and mental health difficulties and his passion and knowledge of physics.

Kuki Pepa, who already has a Bachelor of Science in physics and maths and a Bachelor of Commerce in economics and finance, plans to research medical physics next year.

``We learn in medical physics about how radiation is used to treat patients in the medical field including cancer treatment and imaging. I want to become a medical physicist one day so I can help patients who have to deal with difficult health circumstances.

``I see this as investing in the future of our Pacific people in education of the healthcare system and practices, so they can take care of their own health and healthy lifestyles. Dr Steve Marsh, who is head of the medical physics programme, has been very supportive.

Dr Marsh says medical physics looks at the concepts and methods of physics to the diagnosis and therapy of human disease. Modern medicine relies heavily on physical tools, techniques and principles developed in the physical sciences.

``A medical physicist applies scientific knowledge and technological skills to help prevent, diagnose and treat many kinds of diseases and health conditions. They are most often clinical scientists who play a pivotal role in planning and implementing patient treatment programmes, Dr Marsh says.

``Our medical physics education programme at the University of Canterbury stems from concerns of the New Zealand branch of the Australasian College of Physical Scientists and Engineers in Medicine to recruit and train medical physicists in New Zealand.’’

Pepa says his main motivation for studying medical physics course is to improve the health of Pacific islanders.

``It's not in a good state and most Pacific people rely on traditional treatment because of fear of treatment that is foreign to them and being misinformed about them.’’

Statistics New Zealand figures show one in five Pasifika children and three in five Pasifika adults are overweight. Diabetes disproportionately affects Pasifika adults. One in 10 Pasifika adults experienced psychological distress in the past four weeks. This is much higher than the national average.

Costs prevented 17 percent of Pasifika adults from visiting a GP when they needed to, in the past 12 months. More than in 10 Pasifika adults and children did not collect a prescription item in the past 12 months due to the cost, the statistics show.

Pepa had his first experience with hospitals and medical issues when he was 13 and involved in a serious car accident on his way to school.

He suffered a severe head injury and had multiple fractures. It was through intensive medical care and support from his family and friends and determination that he was able to get back up and make a full recovery.

``I experienced many forms of treatment and had to make some big changes on my path to recovery. This was a real eye opener and had given me a greater appreciation for life realising I dodged a bullet.

``As a New Zealand-born Samoan, my parents would remind our family how privileged we are in New Zealand to get an education they never had.

``Pacific people have a lot of pride in their ethnicity and is a big part of identity. You represent your family and race in the world. Our people generally only seek healthcare when something needs to be fixed or can't be fixed within the family.

``I have extended family members who passed away because they refused to take medication. What I do admire about being a Samoan is that we care very much about people.

``Dealing with failure as an individual is a struggle in our culture and seeking help is seen as a weakness. I felt lost trying to get a job after university and didn't know what I wanted to do or could do.

``I didn't know where to seek help and lost my self-esteem. I had been looking into mental health during that time and knew that I wasn't ok and a sister advised me to go see a counsellor last year. It was one of the best choices I had made as I learnt how to take care of my mental health.’’


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