Waikato health researchers win major grants

14 June 2017

Ross Lawrenson
Professor of Population Health Ross Lawrenson is leading two HRC studies into early cancer diagnosis.

Professor of Population Health Ross Lawrenson has been awarded two project grants from the Health Research Council worth nearly $2.4 million dollars.

The funding will be used to investigate how we can improve outcomes in patients with cancer by focusing on reducing delays in diagnosis.

Professor Lawrenson is working closely with the Midland Cancer Network and clinicians from across the Waikato region. His co-investigators include academic colleagues from the University of Waikato, including Dr Chunhuan Lao and Dr Rawiri Keenan, Dean of Māori and Indigenous Studies Professor Brendan Hokowhitu, Dr Anna Rolleston from Sport, Health and Human Performance and Dr Lyn Hunt from Statistics. He is also collaborating with colleagues from the universities of Auckland and Otago.

Professor Lawrenson will work to find ways to improve early diagnosis of lung cancer among Māori and rural communities, and in a second project he will focus on finding ways to avoid delays in diagnosis for colorectal cancer.

“Lung cancer survival in New Zealand is poor especially for Maori,” Professor Lawrenson says. “This is because lung cancer is generally diagnosed at a late stage, yet early stage cancer can be cured in 75% of patients. The reasons for late diagnosis can be due both to patient and system factors so both need to be addressed.”

In a three-year, $1,199,000 project, Professor Lawrenson will work on a community-designed intervention to increase early presentation for Māori with symptoms of lung cancer. He plans a multi-site intervention within targeted populations that will help people to increase awareness of the disease, the benefits of early diagnosis and which will also reduce the fear of presenting.

“We will work with a variety of stakeholders including the Māori community, GPs and specialists in respiratory medicine from Waikato and Rotorua hospitals.”

The second project will also span three years and is worth $1,195,378. Again early cancer diagnosis is the focus. “We know from our earlier HRC study, the PIPER study led by professors Chris Jackson and Mike Findlay, the benefits from early diagnosis of colorectal cancer in improved chances of survival,” Professor Lawrenson says.

Part of the research will be interviewing patients about their experiences, and analysing referral pathways and GP practice to find ways to quicken the diagnostic process, including follow-up pathways despite negative tests, and smoother transitions between primary and secondary care.

Improving outcomes for hospitalised tamariki

Two other Waikato University academics will be involved in a third HRC-funded study based in the Waikato. Public health physician and associate professor Dr Polly Atatoa Carr and community psychologist Dr Bridgette Masters-Awatere are working with Dr Nina Scott to find out if a holistic approach will improve outcomes for hospitalised tamariki (children).

Dr Scott, a public health physician at Te Puna Oranga, Waikato District Health Board’s Māori health unit, says too many hospitalised tamariki Māori aged zero to four were being re-admitted to hospital within months of going home, often with the same preventable illness. Hospital staff wanted to do more preventative care but just didn’t have the right tools, she says. That led Drs Scott and Atatoa Carr, along with colleagues at the Waikato DHB, to develop Harti Hauora Tamariki, a screening tool to standardise the assessment and management of holistic whānau needs. The tool was piloted in 2015 and is still used at Waikato Hospital.

Dr Atatoa Carr says this new research, worth $933,933 over three years, will use kaupapa Māori research processes to show the effect of Harti Hauora Tamariki on child health outcomes including readmission rates, whānau wellbeing and whānau satisfaction with care. “This research will provide our health care workforce with an important opportunity to roll out a whānau-friendly and evidence-based tool, and ultimately to improve outcomes and health equity,” she says.