Service to Maori health recognised

HELEN HARVEY
Last updated 05:00 02/06/2014
Dr Tony Ruakere
CHARLOTTE CURD/FAIRFAX NZ
SATISFYING LIFE: Dr Tony Ruakere has been named on the Queen’s Birthday’s Honours list for services to Maori health.

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Retired New Plymouth GP Dr Tony Ruakere has been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Maori health.

Ruakere (Taranaki and Te Atiawa) has delivered 700 babies in his 42 years as a Taranaki GP and was on to the third generation when he retired last year.

An advocate for Maori health, he said there were very real problems of accessibility, affordability and appropriateness for Maori in the health system.

"And the average life expectancy of Maori is eight years less, which is quite considerable when everything in the health system is accessible to everybody. The one-hat-fits-all approach has good intentions, but while on the surface we're doing a lot, in reality - not really."

Ruakere grew up in Okato and studied at Otago University.

After working as a GP in Opunake for 13 years he moved to New Plymouth, where he worked in a private practice.

"It was very exclusive, mainly Pakeha, high-end, high-income, very pleasant. I really enjoyed it, but I just looked out the window and decided how it was our people who were the ones crying out for services."

So, in the mid 1990s he sold the practice and helped set up the Te Atiawa Medical Centre.

It was low cost and offered accessibility and affordability, he said.

The patients had big families and there was about 70 per cent unemployment. "Cost was a big factor so we had minimal fees, just enough to cover costs. You wouldn't make a fortune working for a practice like ours."

He was disappointed when it closed, he said. "We ran out of resources really, that sums it up. We had very high needs. We didn't have enough staff. It was far more difficult than a mainstream practice. We were accessing a patient base of more than 3000."

The average practice has about 1200 patients. But back in the day in Opunake, Ruakere had 7000 patients on his books.

The best part of being a GP is the people, he said. "You're a family doctor dealing with families. I don't know how many people I've seen over 40 years - half a million? It was a very satisfying life in general practice."

At one point he had a break and moved to Wellington and was the chief adviser Maori Health with the Ministry of Health. "Bureaucrats live in a world of their own. I enjoyed it but it was policy and meeting with ministers all the time, writing policies. I wanted to return to general practice, so I came home."

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Over the years Ruakere has been a ministerial appointee to numerous boards and organisations, including the New Zealand Medical Council and the New Zealand Asthma Foundation.

He was on the Taranaki District Health Board for nine years and was a foundation member of Tui Ora and Te Ora, the Maori Doctors Association.

"It's hard to think of something I wasn't on. I thought it was important to have a Maori voice."

Ruakere and his wife Anne have four children, including Shortland Street actress Shavaughn Ruakere, and five grandchildren.

- Taranaki Daily News

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