Distinguished Alumni Award for healthcare leadership and innovation

02 March 2017
Image of Dr Lance O'Sullivan
Dr Lance O'Sullivan

Dr Lance O’Sullivan is admired for his energetic Māori health advocacy and next week he will be presented with a Distinguished Alumni Award by the University of Auckland for his leadership and innovation.

“It’s a huge honour to get this award and I’m really proud of the University and the medical education I had there,” he says. “This is a milestone for me – I was the first to attend university from my father’s family and to be considered a worthy graduate of this University is an incredible honour.”

Lance's story has been told many times, from his angry youth to the rocky road of medical school and finally graduating in 2002 with a medical degree from the University of Auckland.

He specialised as a GP, focused on improving Māori health, and has led the way in delivering medtech solutions to help combat poor access to healthcare for often isolated low-income communities.

Lance (who is Te Rāwara, Ngāti hau, Ngāti Maru) is driven by a passionate belief in equal access to healthcare and the need to overcome the impact of child poverty in New Zealand.

He works hard with wife Tracy to make it happen in his Far North community and now he's helping it spread south.

It’s this mahi that he leads every day, working to help alleviate child poverty, and to help Māori and especially Māori rangitahi, to get the healthcare they need.

One of the diseases of poverty in New Zealand is rheumatic fever. We have one of the highest rates in the developed world.  It's really a third world disease, wiped out in most developed countries.

Prevention of rheumatic fever can stop a child developing life-changing rheumatic heart disease.

When Lance and Tracy arrived in Kaitaia, rheumatic fever was rife in the community and children, (usually Māori children), who had several bouts of rheumatic fever were developing rheumatic heart disease.  

Lance and Tracy established healthcare company Navilluso Medical, which set up the MOKO Foundation in 2013, and the MOKO programme - a school-based service focused on preventing rheumatic fever in mainly Māori children.

The MOKO programme was begun in Far North primary school health clinics to take throat swabs of any children presenting with sore throats - an early indicator of rheumatic fever. 

If a child's throat swab is positive for Strep A the MOKO team ensure they can start the child on a course of oral penicillin to stop it at that early stage. (Strep A affects mostly primary school children and peaks at around 9-10 years old).

In the Far North, Lance goes a step further to ensure the living conditions of his young patients are improved. In his adopted home town of Kaitaia, he has fostered local groups to help improve whanau homes too, so that they are warm and healthy.

Now mobile technology has enabled iMOKO - the digital cloud-based, phone app version of the programme - to spread it faster and further.  Thanks to a low-cost broadband initiative, low-income families in the Far North can stay connected with prepaid broadband and iMOKO can go to work.

This allows the iMOKO team to keep parents and whanau informed - for example, that their youngster tested positive for Strep A, needs to go on a course of antibiotics, and their prescription is available now from their nearest chemist.  Parents can ask questions and get advice, and the iMOKO team can follow up on treatment.

In the past year, Lance and his team have worked hard to spread iMOKO and it's now in 40 primary schools, kōhanga reo, and early learning centres from Northland to Auckland, involving more than 20,000 young people.  

He is often on the road, persuading schools to enroll in the scheme and presenting on Strep A, rheumatic fever, how iMOKO works and how they can help their children and school communities.

His vision is to provide iMOKO services to 300,000 children across New Zealand in the next three years.

It's this commitment to equal access to healthcare for all New Zealanders, plus the long hours he puts in to make it happen in the community, that has earned him a reputation as one of New Zealand's most admired healthcare leaders.