Context: Cultural factors in health and illness, and an awareness of community health needs analysis are important issues for medical education. Both have received relatively little recognition in the medical education literature.

This paper describes the development of an educational attachment to remote, predominantly Maori, rural communities in New Zealand. The twin purposes of the programme were to encourage students to adopt broad public health approaches in assessing the health needs of designed communities, and to increase their awareness of the importance of cultural issues.

Methods: During a one week attachment, 51 students from the Wellington School of Medicine were hosted in six small communities in the East Cape region of New Zealand. Students gained an insight into the health needs of the communities and were encouraged to challenge their own attitudes, assumptions and thinking regarding the determinants of health and the importance of cultural factors in health and illness. The programme included both health needs assessment and cultural immersion. Students made visits with primary health care professionals and were also introduced to Maori history and cultural protocol, and participated in diverse activities ranging from the preparation of traditional medicines to performing their own songs in concert.

Conclusions: The students evaluated the course extremely highly. Attachments of this sort provide an opportunity for students to appreciate how cultural values have an impact on health care, and how they also make the teaching and learning of topics such as community health needs analysis an enjoyable and dynamic experience.