Head injuries more common than expected - study

26 April 2010

A Waikato-wide study of head injuries has got off to a busy start with about 50 new notifications a week.

“There are a lot more cases out there than we’d thought,” says researcher Dr Nicola Starkey of the University of Waikato’s Department of Psychology. “We had expected around 30 cases a week, so it’s an indication that these injuries often go unreported. The cases we’ve seen so far range from mild to severe, and about a third of them are children under 16.”

Launched last month, the study aims to record and assess every person who has suffered a brain injury in the Hamilton and Waikato district in the 12 months beginning from March. The area being surveyed includes Franklin County, Huntly, Ngaruawahia, Raglan and Hamilton.

The research project is funded by the Health Research Council and is being conducted by researchers at the University of Waikato and the Auckland University of Technology.

Dr Starkey says traumatic brain injury (TBI) as it’s technically termed is very common; mild or moderate injuries – concussion -- affect around 24,000 New Zealanders each year. Sports, assaults, falls and motor vehicle accidents are common causes, and the effects can be long-lasting.

“It’s very important we get as much information as we can on these injuries so we can plan the best ways to help families with rehabilitation and support,” she says. “We’re particularly interested in why Māori and Pacific people have a higher rate of TBI than the general population.”

Research associate Te Hauwhenua Kirkwood’s role is to focus on Māori participation in the study and make sure the team understands the Māori perspective and protocols.

“It’s often not easy for Māori to come forward for a study like this,” he says. “Many families have been researched quite a lot, and they’ve lost confidence in some of the processes where they haven’t seen the benefits of participating.”

Kirkwood, who’s of Waikato-Maniapoto descent, has a teaching background in adult and primary education. He works as a cultural adviser in Hamilton, and has previously been adviser to the Māori health organisation Te Runanga O Kirikiriroa.

He’s been visiting GP practices serving Māori communities to talk to doctors about the TBI study and encourage them to identify possible participants.

Kirkwood then contacts the person to see if they’re willing to participate in the study. The initial interview – usually held in the person’s home – lasts for one to one-and-a-half hours, and Kirkwood aims to talk to the person with the injury and members of their whānau.

“The wonderful thing about this research project is that we’ve been very staunch in following tikanga, and I’ll always start the interview with a karakia to put people immediately at ease,” he says.

There’s a follow-up interview a month later, and then further meetings at six months and 12 months to collect information on treatment received and how easy or difficult it’s been to get help and information.

Kirkwood says the response so far to the study has been very positive. “The feedback I’ve had indicates that parents think it’s very important to take these head injuries seriously.”

Dr Starkey stresses that people don’t have to go through their GP to join the study. “We want to include every single person who’s suffered a head injury after 1st March,” she says. “Anyone can self-refer, and they can contact us at any time after the injury has occurred – it doesn’t matter if there’s a delay.”

If you or anyone in your family wants to participate in the study, you can find out more by emailing [email protected], calling the study manager on 07 838 4257 or by looking at the study website Alternatively, you can contact Te Hauwhenua Kirkwood directly on 021 246 4548

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