Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Beware of Snake Oil Merchants: They're bad for your Health



When I was Minister of Health in the 1980s I warmed to a suggestion from a Maori colleague that an effort be made to gather information before it was too late about traditional Maori medicines. The department agreed to fund a study and I contacted our two medical schools, suggesting that interviewing Maori kuia could be a good summer holiday job for a Maori medical student. There were no takers. Sure, there weren't a lot of Maori medical students then, but there was simply no interest. I suspect the same response will greet most of the snake oil being promoted for the new Maori Health Authority as it claims an intention to improve outcomes for Maori.

Te Hiringa Hauora thinks that cranking up Maori interest in traditional approaches to health care will improve outcomes. Based on bullswool assertions about the "evils" of colonization and the damage it did to the Maori world view, it seeks to use today's health money to promote spirituality, cultural identity and whanau development to "decolonize" Maori futures. That's only one tax-payer funded nostrum floating around. Another is that money from Vote: Health should be spent on Maramataka Maori, the Maori lunar calendar and forecasting based on the moon cycles, star systems and tides which will lead to an appreciable betterment in Maori mental health. I'm not kidding!

The truth is that if Maori traditional knowledge ever played any part in health care it would have been seven or more generations back when significant numbers of Maori contained majority Maori DNA, spoke te reo, and still related to Maori customs and religious practices. And even then, they didn't help much: Maori life expectancy in 1840 was about 30 years. Today after all the so-called evils of colonization, education, better food and scientific advances, Maori life expectancy is in the 70s. As such talk of Maori solutions to health spreads I hear the old spiritual "Give me that old-time religion; it's good enough for me" warbling in the background. The thought that the new Maori Health Authority with its half billion-dollar funding might just pour it away is truly scary. It's a reflection on the naivety of Jacinda Ardern's government, Health Minister Andrew Little, who seems to believe in miracles, and the Public Interest Journalism Fund that paid for the recent cock and bull stories in a Newshub article.

However, there is one bit of old-time religion that has been proven to work. It's called parental care and responsibility for the children they produce. It is a parent's responsibility to get children vaccinated, introduced to child care, and sent to school. The fact that more than 50% of Maori children on any school day are now truanting from school, engaging in ram-raids and apprenticing to gangs isn't the government's fault: it can be laid squarely at the door of a parent or parents. Sadly, welfare beneficiaries who are paid by the taxpayers to look after their children seem to be at the heart of the problem. Governments can make health services more easily available by way of schools, public health nurses, and in distant extremities of the country by salaried GPs. They can work hard to encourage more Maori to train as nurses and doctors and might even consider bonding them to country service. But in the end, we need to remember that, if the horse is going to drink the water, it has to make the decision itself. That's where parenting comes in. The state should apply pressure to careless parents. Benefits should be deducted if truancy and poor supervision of children are identified. But Jacinda's government constantly averts its gaze, preferring to believe that ballooning welfare rolls play no part in "inequitable" health outcomes for Maori. Funny that. I'm old enough to recall that bad Maori health statistics compared with other ethnicities weren't anything like as common in the era before the introduction of the Domestic Purposes Benefit in 1974. This government is constantly surprised by the fact that lifting benefits seems only to lead to more beneficiaries. Wouldn't it be great if someone was in charge who understood how incentives actually work?

I'm not opposed to Maori enjoying their old-time religion. They might find it historically interesting. Many have a very limited understanding of their history. But using taxpayers' funds to kid them it is a potential health cure is unforgivable. It is nothing more than mistaking snake oil for proven science and common sense.