Dr Karen Poutasi credits the education she received in Gore as the foundation for what she has achieved in her 40-year career.
In the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, Dr Poutasi was made a dame for her services to education and the state, including 30 years in the health sector and, for more than a decade as New Zealand Qualifications Authority chief executive.
Dame Karen said although she was born in Ranfurly she came to Gore when she was about 8 years old and attended West Gore School before moving to Gore High School.
“I believe it gave me the education that set me up for my life, so I’m very grateful,” Dame Karen said.
Gore High, being co-educational, gave her the opportunity to study physics and mathematics, which some of the women she attended medical school with had not been able to do because they attended all-girls schools.
She was the only girl in those classes.
“A, it was great competition with the boys and B, I got what I needed for medical school.”
She had not enjoyed physics but her teacher encouraged her to persevere with the subject.
He told her “Karen you just have to get it out of your mind that you can’t do it”.
“That sort of push is often just what you need even if mentally you don’t quite agree with it.”
At a time when a career in medicine was not a usual choice for a woman, she was not discouraged from following her dreams.
“I found that environment very enabling and not at all dismissive of what I wanted to do.”
After leaving school, Dr Poutasi studied medicine at the University of Otago.
Her management career began when she was appointed deputy medical superintendent at Dunedin Hospital.
It was not easy picking an achievement that she was most proud of but throughout her career she had enjoyed working in teams to improve the access people had to education and health services.
“Each of the times you are looking at either how do we solve a particular problem or how do we get better access or how do we get better quality so it’s looking at those themes over the years.
The arise of telemedicine, where patients connected with health staff either by telephone or the internet during the Covid-19 lockdown, was an example of how patients’ needs could be better served by changing the way services were provided.
“The opportunity to do things differently is always there and so we can’t stay stuck in the past.”
Dame Karen is now Waikato District Health Board’s commissioner.
She is also deputy chairwoman of the Crown-owned company Network for Learning and is chairwoman of the New Zealand Appointment Committee for Harkness Fellowships awarded by the Commonwealth Fund of New York.
She was a panel member of the Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry from 2016 to 2017.
She is a member of Global Women New Zealand and has been chairwoman of Basketball New Zealand.
From 2007 to 2011 Dr Poutasi volunteered on the board of Presbyterian Support Central.