Improving the health of Hawai‘i’s people

Doris Segal Matsunaga earned her Master of Public Health (MPH) in Health Education from UH Mānoa in 1980. She has dedicated her career to improving the health of Hawai‘i’s people by bringing the values of social justice to her work with diverse communities.

As the Maternal Child Health Director at Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services, Doris has seen firsthand how dedicated staff and volunteers can turn small, grant-funded programs into sustainable organizations that are working toward societal change.

"Public health programs work best when they are created by the community and anchored in their unique strengths, not just their problems,” she says.

From the very first job after graduating with her MPH, Doris has lived that principle. As the first health educator hired at Wai‘anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center (WCCHC), she helped to organize the "Run for Your Life” event, a 4-mile run (or 2-mile walk) in Nanakuli valley, where residents wanted to bring positive recognition to a beautiful community with a tough reputation. With the proceeds from the run, the WCCHC was able to purchase new emergency room equipment, and the run continued for 15 years.

"Public health professionals must understand the importance of honoring the cultural beliefs and traditions of those we work with " she says.

While at the WCCHC, Doris also worked on the Wai‘anae Cancer Research Project, an NCI-funded effort that was aimed at increasing early detection of breast and cervical cancer. The project was unique in many ways. It was designed to involve community members as not only research subjects, but also as participants in planning, implementation, and evaluation.

In addition, the project honored Native Hawaiian traditions. The staff members who worked on the project were called "navigators," because the project's advisors wanted a name that would resonate with the community. These navigators recruited community members to host “Kokua Groups” in their homes.

“The project had a significant impact on the community's knowledge and attitudes towards cancer screening,” she says.

Doris credits her UH Public Health professors John Hayakawa, Bill Golden, Jerry Grossman and Lib Clark with pushing her toward ever deeper levels of self-reflection. From them, she learned to how to gain acceptance from local communities and develop lasting relationships.

Doris is a “doer” and appreciates the effort it takes to solve problems. Doris has managed many programs and supervised many staff and volunteers over the years, and has seen that solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems often emerge in their own time out of collective ideas, wisdom, and action. And she is still learning to have faith in that process, despite seeing it happen over and over. The lesson is that pushing for what “should be” may distract us from taking advantage of the opportunities that exist right now to make the desired change.

A career in public health holds great meaning for her, she says. "Public health is a way to increase social and political justice in our world."

Photo: Doris Segal Matsunaga (second from the right).

University of Hawai‘i Alumni