How is Canada’s healthcare access for immigrants and refugees? At a time when the Canadian government is responding to the Syrian refugee crisis by bringing thousands of refugees into Canada, a new study from the University of Calgary argues that refugees and new immigrants to Canada are in need of better access to health care services and that the Canadian government must invest in more supportive measures to help newcomers entering Canada’s health care system.
The study published this month in the International Journal for Equality in Health looks at immigrant and ethnic minority healthcare in Canada and the United States and argues that barriers to access are a considerable problem for newcomers and minorities, resulting in increased risk among these populations for developing acute and chronic conditions that are costly to both patients and to the health care system.
“Immigrants are among the most vulnerable population groups in North America; they face multidimensional hurdles to obtain proper healthcare,” the study’s authors say.
Resettlement is a multifaceted challenge, not just for the refugees themselves but for the government agencies and sponsorship groups involved in the process. All aspects of living need to be addressed anew, from finding accommodation and employment to getting children into schools, locating the grocery store and figuring out the transit system.
But barriers to health care are often quite pronounced, say the study’s authors. “Immigrants and refugees often face not only language barriers but also low levels of health literacy, financial issues, unfamiliarity with the healthcare system as well as cultural and religious discordance.”
Importantly, the study’s authors say that a key supportive element for this transition should be the use of community navigator programs.
Community health navigators help vulnerable populations by guiding them through an often multilayered and complex health care system. They work within communities to tailor their support to the community’s and individual’s needs, providing educational services, facilitating communication between patient and physician and generally doing what’s necessary so that newcomers and vulnerable populations get proper access to health care.
In many parts of Canada, community navigator programs are already established for helping cancer patients deal with the complexities of cancer treatment, but navigator programs geared at immigrant and minority groups have yet to take off.
One such program is the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative (MCHB Co-op) in Edmonton, which provides culturally tailored and health care focused assistance to immigrant and refugee women and their families.
The MCHB Co-op began when the Edmonton Board of Health discovered that immigrant and ethnic minority individuals were not attending free-of-charge prenatal classes, and in talking with Edmonton’s Chinese community members it was discovered that not only was there a lack of awareness of health care programs but concern among soon-to-be parents about potential conflicts between their personal views on prenatal health and those of health care providers.
This was the spark needed to create the Brokers’ Cooperative, which presently serves over 2,000 families a year from 25 different cultural and linguistic communities.
But Canada remains well behind the U.S. in terms of developing a network of community navigator programs, say the study’s authors. “As immigrants are becoming an increasing proportion of the Canadian population the potential utility of community navigators for these groups may also grow.”