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Understanding the past to help shape our future

NZ Country Head, Kylie Pennington shares why our cultural learning is an essential step towards building more inclusive healthcare in Aotearoa/New Zealand

As an Australian now living and working in Aotearoa/New Zealand, I’ve spent the past six months settling in and getting to know this amazing country, its people and our AbbVie business here.

Reflecting on my journey so far, both personally and professionally, the single most meaningful experience that stands out for me is the pursuit of cultural competence that we’ve embarked on as an organisation in order to truly recognise the unique role of Māori as Tangata Whenua of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, Māori make up around 17 per cent of the population, and when considering Pasifika communities, that number rises to over 25 per cent. Acknowledging these demographics, it became evident that if we want to make a remarkable impact on our patients' lives, we need to have a deeper understanding of the communities we serve.

We know that despite being an integral part of the country's cultural fabric, Māori communities continue to experience significant disparities in health outcomes, access to healthcare, and overall well-being. They face disproportionate impacts in various health areas, including atopic dermatitis, with higher prevalence particularly in children and adolescents and limited access to healthcare.

These disparities stem from a complex interplay of socio-economic factors, historical injustices, and systemic barriers that have perpetuated unequal access to quality healthcare. Understanding and confronting these challenges is essential if we are to move towards building a fairer and more inclusive local healthcare system for all.

When AbbVie NZ first started out to improve our cultural competency, we knew that learning the language would be a beneficial part of our education, so we began offering Māori language lessons for our employees. Our people have really embraced this learning opportunity and we’re seeing huge benefits to bridging the cultural gaps and further fostering inclusivity in our workplace and with our local customers and patients. Through our Māori language lessons, we have not only built greater comfort with language and pronunciation but have also gained insights into the rich history and traditions that shape the Māori identity.

Understanding the historical context has helped us comprehend the relationship between Māori and the Crown and how this has played a role in shaping the health disparities faced by Māori communities. The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between Māori and the Crown established a partnership that recognized Māori rights and sovereignty. However, the implementation of the Treaty has been marred by challenges, including breaches of agreements, land confiscation, and cultural suppression. These historical injustices have created intergenerational trauma, socio-economic disadvantages, and systemic biases that continue to impact the health and well-being of Māori communities today.

At AbbVie, cultural understanding has evolved from being merely an ethical responsibility to a business imperative. As a leading biopharmaceutical company operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand and serving its population, we must have an open mind and commitment to thinking beyond medicine and playing a role in striving for equal access to healthcare for all New Zealanders. It’s not just about providing solutions; it’s about viewing them through a pro-equity lens and actively working towards a healthcare system that serves everyone.

One of the most memorable experiences for me so far has been spending the day at a marae, a sacred Māori meeting house. Immersed in the atmosphere of deep spiritual significance, I witnessed first-hand the power of cultural practices and their role in preserving heritage. It was during this time that I realised the significance of going back to understand the past in order to help shape our future.

The enormity of the challenge in addressing health inequity among Māori communities is not lost on me. But I believe it starts with acknowledging the historical context and the ongoing effects of colonisation, while also recognising the resilience and strength within Māori communities.

At AbbVie, we’re taking some small but important steps towards cultural competence and understanding, including ensuring that we receive training in cultural awareness, language proficiency, and the understanding of Māori customs and values.

We have incorporated cultural inclusivity into our onboarding materials and we look forward to welcoming interns from diverse backgrounds as we embark on our graduate internship program. To demonstrate respect and appreciation, we have implemented cultural practices such as opening meetings with Karakia/Māori greetings. These are small but meaningful gestures to help create an environment where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued.

It’s an ongoing process with no end point; we’re continually learning and growing to move towards a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the Māori culture.

Our hope is that through our learning and by fostering culturally safe and inclusive environments, we can establish trust, improve communication, and deliver care that respects Māori cultural practices and preferences.

This quest for cultural understanding has not only transformed my perspective personally but has had a profound impact on the relationships I've built with my colleagues, our customers and our patients since arriving in Aotearoa/New Zealand six months ago with my family. Together – through our increased awareness and understanding - we can celebrate diversity and strengthen our community to build a fairer and more inclusive local healthcare system for all.