Dr Colin Tukuitonga - Chief Executive, Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs
Dr Colin Tukuitonga is the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs(MPIA) where he provides strategic leadership for the Ministry, building effective bridges between government, agencies and Pacific communities.
Dr Tukuitonga came to MPIA from a position as Associate Professor of Public Health (Pacific and International Health) at the University of Auckland, where he played a key role in establishing the Department of Māori and Pacific Health and Pacific Health Research Centre. Dr Tukuitonga was Coordinator of Surveillance and Prevention of Chronic Diseases for the WHO in Geneva. He has held advisory posts with other international agencies including the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
Growing up in Niue, Dr Colin Tukuitonga was a world away from the leadership role he now holds. “When I was a young boy, the doctors and medical staff in Niue were New Zealanders. Dr Winston Barnes was the Chief Medical Officer in the hospital in Niue and it was with encouragement from him, my grandfather, and my family that I pursued a career in medicine. I was very motivated to do health, it was something that interested me and through a New Zealand government scholarship and hard work I was able to pursue it.”
At that time the nearest medical school was at the Fiji School of Medicine, University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. Dr Tukuitonga completed his training at the Fiji School of Medicine and started his career as a medical officer in Niue. The role of medical officer in Niue was very similar to how doctors in New Zealand used to work; Dr Tukuitonga says “it was like the general practice of old New Zealand. You’d have your day job doing general practice and then you’d also have your hospital appointment where you could be doing anything from obstetrics to surgical. It was hospital based but a lot of what you did was general medicine.”
In 1987 he sat the New Zealand registration exams and entered general practice. As a general practitioner working mainly in West and South Auckland he began to observe things that were clearly related to public health, “as a thinking GP it’s obvious that the health issues you’re treating on a daily basis are related to public health. Smoking, inadequate housing, over-crowding all contributes to poor health.” says Dr Tukuitonga. After many years in general practice Dr Tukuitonga felt it was getting more difficult to switch off. “I was worrying too much about people and knew there had to be a way I could contribute by addressing the broader health issues of a greater number of people. This is when I started to get more involved in public health and preventive medicine. I felt it was an area of health that was more in tune with my values of social justice and fairness.”
After completing training in public health Dr Tukuitonga was able to influence projects that could impact the health of a greater number of people in the community. He says “there’s no question that helping an individual with a medical problem and getting a good outcome is satisfying and there have been instances where without me performing a procedure that individual would have died. It’s also tremendously satisfying addressing how that problem arises in the first place, being in a teaching role, influencing young minds, and being involved in research.” Dr Tukuitonga was one of the lead people to put public health, particularly for Pacific people on the national agenda. Prior to his publication on the health of Pacific people it had not been a priority and his work brought the health status of some of our more vulnerable people to the attention of the Ministry of Health. He says “as a result of that work the ‘Heartbeat’ programme was set up with the National Heart Foundation. There is now a very strong and vibrant Pacific health sector and there is a natural tendency for Pacific people to drift towards careers in health. There is greater scope for careers in health now and I’d like to see more opportunities for leadership positions in management for Pacific people.”
Although Dr Tukuitonga now describes himself as more of a manager and leader he says that a lot of what you learn in medicine is transferable. “The values you learn as a doctor, the principles based on the Hippocratic Oath, the values of integrity and honesty and doing good things for others are values people appreciate in a leader. The need to verify information, assess what the problem is and problem solve follows the medical model of diagnosis and treatment. In any situation it’s essential you can define the problem; what’s going on, who’s involved, and what’s required.” He says “in medicine you learn very quickly the importance of communication and being very clear. It’s about prioritising and distilling information and that’s something I bring to my current role.”
As Chief Executive, Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, Dr Tukuitonga is in a position to make things happen. He says “I always keep up with what’s going on in the news and prioritise in order to make sure we’re achieving the things we should, if there’s a project that’s a priority I can move money into that area. I enjoy meeting with people and managing ministerial and stakeholder relationships. I’m involved in policy and meeting our legislative responsibilities, I feel privileged to be in this position. I try not to deal with everything myself but frequently a decision will need to be made but the final responsibility lies with me. It’s not uncommon to be challenged on a decision, usually around the blurred line between politics and policy. In those instances I can draw on some of my medical training, and ask what our role here is, what is the right thing to do and what’s the right advice?”
Overall, Dr Tukuitonga believes a career in health has been very rewarding. He says “one of the fantastic things about a career in health is that there’s never any shortage of opportunities. It’s one of those sectors where you will always find something worthwhile and it gives you a good grounding for pursuing other roles. It’s a well respected international qualification and it can take you anywhere and is an immensely personally satisfying career to have in terms of caring for people.” The rewards Dr Tukuitonga gets from his current role include the satisfaction of developing new programmes and services from outside the health sector that impact on people’s health, including housing and employment. He believes strongly in the value of community development and empowerment and celebrating culture. “What I’m doing has given me a broader perspective than purely working in the health sector; it’s exciting and very rewarding.”
Dr Tukuitonga regards himself as fortunate to have had such a varied career to date and he’s keen at some point to document some of his experiences. He says “I’d like to be remembered for contributing to the health status of Pacific people, putting it on the national agenda and finding solutions to some of the issues.”