Medical Responsibility to Refugees

Friday marks the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. When the Holocaust happened, the response by international governments and organizations was similar to what we are experiencing with current crises: minuscule.

Since the Holocaust, several organizations have expressed their regret that they didn’t do enough to prevent the horrendous events, including the Red Cross.

Today, we have another violent crisis in Syria which has caused approximately 11 million refugees to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries or asylum status in Europe.

Infographic displaying plight of Syrian REfugees

With 13.5 million people needing humanitarian aid to survive, we are experiencing a repeat situation where there just isn’t enough aid. In fact, the UN reports that all of their appeals since the beginning of the war have been underfunded. Certainly, the world is repeating its mistakes and failing Syria (check out what CNN, BBC, and the Washington Post have to say about this).

Despite the terrible stories, data demonstrating the suffering, and well-crafted emotion commercials (like this one by Save the Children), many people still lack any inkling of empathy. Both overseas and locally, people are hesitant to offer a helping hand to refugees.

One way in which this impacts refugees is by determining how their lives unfold after the resettlement process.

Just think, you come to the U.S. as a refugee, and you know from the recent election results that there is a good number of people who are anti-immigrants and specifically anti-Muslim. Then, as part of your entrance, you’re required to do a medical exam.

As medical professionals, you have a huge opportunity to not only welcome refugees, but impress health knowledge on them that could have a huge impact on their lives. Despite this, many medical professionals do not know how to work with refugees and often handle the situation poorly by asking inappropriate questions, rushing exams, poorly explaining procedures, and not providing interpreters and translations.

As the Medical Daily puts it, “Health care is key. In the U.S., it can be difficult for the average person to keep up with a quickly changing and evolving health care system. Refugees, many of whom have never experienced a Western health care system, often face language barriers and usually do not have their own transportation.”

If you haven’t experience it, let me tell you: the American health system is a pain to navigate.

Case in point, I got hit by a truck in 2015. I was barely able to process thoughts, and the EMT needed me to tell them to which hospital they should take me to ensure I was covered by my insurance. When I finally got to the hospital, after being drugged up on pain medications, they asked me to sign a form which I had and have no idea what it said. On another occasion, I was wrongly charged for birth control. In order to reverse the charge, I had to call my physician to have her correct her entry, then call billing again to have them resubmit the charge. In the meantime, my bill accidentally got sent to collections since the entire reconsideration process took longer than the window I had to pay my bill.

Can you imagine navigating all this after having lost your family, friends, and belongings, and you don’t speak English?

Actually, scratch that, can you imagine doing this and you don’t speak English? – It’s hard enough without adding all the trauma to the situation.

Like everyone who touches a refugee’s life, medical professionals have a huge opportunity to positively impact refugees. However, medical professionals have an added responsibility of impacting a refugee’s health, the bedrock of their survival in every other aspect of their new lives in the U.S.

Therefore, we ask you to go the extra step:

Don’t just give them the phone number for a specialist; help them schedule it, or make sure an interpreter is around to help.

Get yourself trained on how to work with refugee patients. Maria Velasco at Spring Institute does an awesome intercultural training that we would recommend. If your organization won’t pay for training, then read up on our free resources for medical professionals working with limited English proficiency patients.

What are some specific tips that you would recommend to healthcare providers who are working with refugees?

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