Filling the gaps for migrant health care

·3-min read

A multicultural health collaborative is advocating for the provision of care and a voice for culturally and linguistically diverse people, many whose visas render them ineligible for Medicare.

Currently run by the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, the national initiative highlights the healthcare needs of a growing population of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

For many of them, their needs are unmet, federation chief executive and co-chair of the collaborative, Mohammad Al-Khafaji said.

The collaborative, which delivers leadership and advocacy on policy, research and practice, hopes to improve equity and achieve better health outcomes. Down the track it will seek federal government and philanthropic funding for the collaborative.

A World Health Organisation report has found migration and displacement often trigger poorer health outcomes. In turn, that precipitates poorer levels of education, income, housing and access to services, compounded by linguistic, cultural and legal barriers, the report found.

Australia's challenge to providing health care to multicultural groups became evident as COVID-19 exposed a lack of data, interpretation and accurate translation to those without English proficiency.

The pandemic "shone a stark spotlight on and has exacerbated health inequities already experienced by (these) communities in Australia, including in relation to mental health, aged care and disability", the collaborative says.

Among its goals, it will advocate for language services, interpreters and culturally resonant health information and improved collection and reporting of data.

Translating health information alone was not enough.

"Access to that information and how it is consumed and understood is the problem,'' Mr Al-Khafaji said.

He added that many health professionals still do not use qualified professional interpreters to communicate sensitive health information to patients.

For instance, a NSW study on cancer diagnoses revealed some cases were not fully translated, or not at all because interpreters found it inappropriate to convey a terminal disease diagnosis.

"There are many sensitive health issues which need to be communicated in a culturally safe and appropriate manner, such as end of life or childbirth,'' Mr Al-Khafaji said.

"Without collecting appropriate data about cultural origins, it is difficult to ensure a health policy or health service is inclusive. This lack of data often leads to under-representation of those communities in research.''

Health, including disease onset and outcomes, and health risk factors and determinants are clearly patterned by ethnicity internationally, yet Australian data is severely lacking in this area, the federation said.

"The collaborative aims to address health inequities which many refugee and migrant communities face, by advocating for systemic change to ensure the needs of our communities are met."

The collaborative is membership-based and includes consumers, health-and-wellbeing services, practitioners and researchers. It will partner with other national health-related, academic and research organisations and may include state government departments with an affiliation to multicultural health.

Systemic racism in health systems, a key factor in underlying inequities and inequalities, will also be addressed.

"Coming to Australia as a refugee with my family almost 20 years ago, I know what racism looks like and how it prevents people from accessing government services, especially health services,'' Mr Al-Khafaji said.

Links to relevant projects, reports and research findings on health and wellbeing issues will be posted on a web-based knowledge hub.

Almost half the Australian population has a parent born overseas and 27.6 per cent reported a birthplace overseas, the ABS 2021 Census found.

The number of people who used a language other than English at home has risen by nearly 800,000 from 2016 to more than 5.5 million people, while 850,000 reported they do not speak English well, or at all.

The federation points out significant numbers of people who may have been born in Australia, may have English language proficiency, and continue to identify strongly with a particular cultural or religious group, are often excluded from the sector's data.

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