Tag Archives: christchurch

Christchurch meet the future; Zach meet Christchurch

It would have struggled to be more low key.  There was no Champaign.  No flashy graphics.  No celebrity speakers.  But it was probably one of the most radical and important announcements made in Christchurch and in the technology space in decades.  You see, Zach is coming to town and we have all been invited.

Zach is an A.I.  Zach belongs to the Terrible Foundation  – indeed, Zach runs the foundation and their business.  Zach calls itself the Chief Executive.

Terrible are bringing Zach and one of the most powerful super-computers on the planet to Christchurch.  True to their ethos of challenging inequalities by helping great ideas to thrive, they are not seeking to make money out of it – though they potentially could make many truck loads, rather they want the people of Christchurch to interact with Zach and learn what an AI is and to develop uses for it.  The key figure behind all this told me that the decision it was for the “future generation”.

What astounded me with Zach is that you don’t need to code to work with it.  Zach message, email or talk to Zach in English (or indeed from the sounds of it several other languages so far).  Zach will respond the same way.  If you don’t like what the response is you can train Zach by telling it what you like or what you’d like to change.  For a few weeks a Christchurch GP has been working with Zach and already it is able to listen into a medical consultation and write up a concise summary as well as the doctor & in the format the doctor wants, thus enabling the doctor to spend more time with the patient and less on paper work.

You may have noted that I’ve not mentioned any people by name… they have their own story to tell and it is not for me to try and tell it for them.  What I am excited about is how Zach may help our group to improve care processes for people who come to the emergency department.  Hopefully, we will have our own Zach story to tell in the not too distant future.


Update: Christchurch Press article here.

A taste of success

Some recent successes of University of Otago Christchurch researchers:

Chlorine bleach key in disease?

Professor Tony Kettle from the Centre for Free Radical Research has won a prestigious Marsden Fund grant to better understand a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ chemical with a role in heart disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Professor Kettle will investigate chlorine bleach’s role in strengthening collagen by linking to form a resilient mesh. Without this mesh people can develop cataracts and an autoimmune disease that destroys the kidneys and causes the lungs to hemorrhage. However bleach can also have negative effects.

“Chlorine bleach should be viewed as a natural chemical with a Jekyll and Hyde personality. It helps us to fight infections and form strong connective tissue but also endangers our health during uncontrolled inflammation.”

Professor Kettle and his team will work with researchers from Vienna and Budapest on the project.

Improving the treatment and experience for dialysis patients

Chronic kidney disease is common, affecting about 500,000 New Zealanders. It is important because it increases chances of heart disease and death and may lead to needing treatment with dialysis or a kidney transplant. Dialysis therapy is a heavy and costly burden for patients and their families and the health system. However, there is a lack of reliable evidence to improve patient outcomes.

Dr Suetonia Palmer has just been awarded a prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowship valued at $800,000 over five years for research project called: “Improving evidence for decision-makers in chronic kidney disease.”

Dr Palmer’s research aims to to provide rigorous overviews of existing research and participant-led enquiry to provide better and more useable information for clinicians, consumers and policy-makers in the field of chronic kidney disease.

Recovering from food addiction

Professor Doug Sellman and his team from the National Addiction Centre have just been granted funding to trial a new treatment for those with obesity called Kia Akina.

“There is a serious need to develop new non-surgical ways of treating obesity because obesity-related diseases are expensive for New Zealand, traditional non-surgical methods are not working, and surgery is very costly,” says Professor Sellman.

Kia Akina uses a ‘food addiction’ approach to obesity. Professor Sellman says the project will test the feasibility, short-term effectiveness and participant satisfaction ofKia Akina within a primary health care setting.

If shown to be effective, Kia Akina will be developed as a non-commercial, low cost network for obesity recovery throughout New Zealand.

Innovation in Indigenous Health

Christchurch’s Maori/Indigenous Health Institute (MIHI) recently won the Australasian award for ‘innovation in Indigenous health curriculum implementation’ at the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education (LIME) conference.

The LIME conference brings together all 20 medical schools throughout Australia and New Zealand, and hosts attendees from the United States and Canada.

Staff and students of the University of Otago, Christchurch, in Darwin at the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education (LIME) conference

Staff and students of the University of Otago, Christchurch, in Darwin at the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education (LIME) conference

MIHI director Suzanne Pitama says she and her team were thrilled to receive the award. As there is much collaboration between indigenous teaching teams at University of Otago’s Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin campuses, the award recognises the innovation of all these teams.  It also recognised the systemic support within the University of Otago to prioritise indigenous health within the curriculum.

MIHI oversees the Maori health component of the medical curriculum at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

Award nominees are judged on how well their teaching programmes demonstrate their commitment and experience to understanding and furthering the health of Maori and Indigenous peoples.

The award has been presented for four years, says Pitama. MIHI also won it in the inaugural year.

A review panel of academic peers and members of indigenous medical doctors associations judge the award, Pitama says.

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This guest post was written by Kim Thomas,  Senior Communications Advisor, University of Otago, Christchurch, www.uoc.otago.ac.nz.

Medical professionals act up

Actors are helping Christchurch medical students practise the skills necessary to relate to patients.

Dr Lynette Murdoch organises the General Practice component for 4th year medical students at the University of Otago, Christchurch.  She says the General Practice Department has long employed professional actors to play the role of simulated patients.

“The consultations our students have with the simulated patients allow them to apply their knowledge to realistic situations, and to practise the skills necessary to relate well with patients.  The students receive feedback directly from the simulated patients.’’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASimulated patients are people who pretend to be a particular patient with a particular condition. They can be actors or volunteers who are trained in order for the students to meet predetermined learning objectives.

The University of Otago, Christchurch educates medical students between their fourth to sixth and final year.  Students move between different specialities such as general practice and paediatrics. They also spend time at the Simulation Centre, which provides a safe environment for them, and postgraduate nursing students, to practise clinical and professional skills. They make use of high-technology manikins and Simulation Centre director Dr MaryLeigh Moore is investigating the greater use of actors, as well as at some stage recruiting volunteers from the community.

Dr Moore recently returned from a learning trip to a well-established Australian programme using simulated patients and volunteers

She explains: “Volunteers  – community members who are healthy or who have chronic illness – can contribute valuable learning opportunities to students by simply being themselves, and increasing opportunities for students to interact with a range of people.’’

“’Simulated patients bring consistency to their presentations and responses as opposed to the ‘real’ and varied responses and perspectives of volunteers.’’

Dr Moore says the benefits to the students are very real and volunteers and simulated patients can also experience a significant sense of reward from contributing to the training of doctors.

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This guest post was written by Kim Thomas,  Senior Communications Advisor, University of Otago, Christchurch, www.uoc.otago.ac.nz.

2 years on the Papanui campus remembers and celebrates

This post is published at 12:51 February 22 2013 – exactly 2 years to the day from the deadly Christchurch quake and 5.5km from where I was on that day.  This morning I met with a PhD student as she prepares the penultimate version of her thesis.  Two years ago she, I, another PhD student and several others from my research group occupied the “clip on” on the University of Otago Christchurch building above the main entrance of Christchurch Hospital. Less than 24 hours later the Papanui campus was established.  First PhD student was within one month of submission of her thesis.  The first task was to rescue as much of the thesis as we could from USB sticks etc.  Fortunately we managed to put together enough to get on with, and her thesis eventually had a successful outcome.

My OfficeWhen I reflect now, I just got on with what I knew I could do. I left my medical colleagues in the hospital to get on with what they knew best.  I stood outside the hospital main entrance and saw the first casualties being brought in. Once I was sure that my students and colleagues were OK to find their way home, like thousands of others I started walking home to check on my own family.  In the meantime, others worked.  Yesterday I heard Prof Michael Ardagh, head of the Emergency Department, talk about the response of the hospital staff and medical students.  It is a remarkable story – it worked, and lives were saved, because plans were in place.  It worked because the staff put others ahead of themselves.  This was not just the doctors and nurses.  It was the med students who ran errands, the maintenance staff her with ingenuity (story of a truck and syphoning diesel) kept generators running, of blood bank staff in the bowels of the hospital ankle deep in water with intermittent power processing requests from the ED and ICU, of the Canterbury Health Labs who picked up their equipment, recalibrated, and were back on line within 20 minutes.

The Papanui Campus at age 730 days

The Papanui Campus at age 730 days


The University of Otago Christchurch building is now open again.  The students are back, and the labs up and running.  I hope to get an office back sometime in the next month or two.  The scientific community from the universities of Lincoln and Canterbury, and private enterprises like Canterbury Scientific have been fantastic at opening their doors and hosting labs and staff.  Others, like myself, established themselves where they could and got on with what they could.  While there are casualties of the disruption – staff moved on (I no longer have a lab group to work with), studies interrupted (I had a study going in the ED and ICU at the time which was inevitably suspended), and grants not able to be written for lack of staff, pilot data etc, there has also been much success to celebrate.  Not least are two years of teaching which happened at various odd venues around the city including several sporting club rooms.  Prof Christine Winterbourne was awarded the highest scientific award in New Zealand in 2011 – the Rutherford Medal, and there were other awards for Uni Otago Christchurch staff too.  Just this past month some colleagues have received promotions to Professorships – deserved.  Some new research areas have begun, particularly over the health effects of a major disaster. Students have graduated, and many papers have been published (12 & a book chapter for me in the last 2 years 🙂 ).  Plenty to celebrate.

Across the front of the University of Otago Christchurch building are the words “Research Saves Lives.”  Decades of research saved lives on 22 February 2011.  The research in the years since will save lives in the years to come.  Well done colleagues.  Thank you Canterbury for the support.

The Italian job

The pressure to find a scapegoat

A judge with the statistical acumen of a gnat

Six rather bewildered scientists

A travesty of justice.

It’s too absurd to make a movie, yet its is very real to those scientists and their families. If you have not caught up with the news, six scientists and a government official have been given jails sentences of six years for multiple manslaughter.  Their crime appears to be that they gave falsely reassuring statements to the people of who had been experiencing multiple small quakes.  The were accused of giving ” ‘inexact, incomplete and contradictory’ information about the danger of the tremors” felt before the L’Aquilla earthquake on 6 April 2009.

Living in Christchurch we have desperately wanted earthquakes to be predictable – so desperate that we gave airtime to a man with deranged ideas about the influence of the moon.  We have managed to avoid blaming the scientists, yet.

The Italian scientists have been convicted not so much for “failure to predict” but because they said that a powerful earthquake was unlikely but could not be ruled out. This appears to have been too upbeat (in retrospect) for some. Apparently this meant some people stayed inside on the night of the quake.

The most powerful force in action here appears to be the need to blame.  This has been around since Adam blamed Eve, and we all know it from our childhood.  We also know it from politics where every few years politicians blame the economy on other politicians, bankers, businessmen, unions, or immigrants (take your pick). Scientists are just another target – they are no unique.  What is unique is the perception that when scientists speak out they are speaking the infallible truth.  Whilst most scientists will deny this, their “disclaimers” or words of caution are often given scant coverage by the media. If their words are inexact or incomplete then they are unlikely to be reported.  If they are contradictory – we only get a you said/she said type story with no coverage of the science. Yet we can not just blame the media, the reader of the media who believes that  science is all about proof has somehow missed the boat.  Maybe this is due to a failure of education, maybe the spectacular success of technology has blinded them to the inherent uncertainties in science, or maybe they have been duped by some scientists who have taken a very high horse approach making proclamations with an air of infallibility.  Whatever  the  reason, we are still children in the playground pointing the finger.  Be not surprised when it points at you.