Facing the barriers of culture, language, and digital fluency, newcomers to Canada are prone to slipping through the cracks when it comes to accessing much needed health-care services.
In response, the Newcomer Health Hub (NHH), an online resource developed by fourth-year medical students Lotus Alphonsus, Amalka De Silva, and Penelope Neocleous, provides critical information to close these gaps. These resources empower newcomers to take control of their health, and enable health-care workers to provide culturally competent care.
And now this unique service just got a boost thanks to two new projects undertaken by the team.
One initiative centres around providing much-needed clarity to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), which provides health coverage for specific groups, including refugee claimants, until they become eligible for insurance. The group’s research has shown that the complexity of the program – especially regarding physician billing – is a barrier to health-care providers taking on IFHP patients.
The students are creating simplified guidelines for providers along with an outreach initiative that will raise awareness of the program and how it works, with the goal of increasing the number of newcomers accessing IFHP support.
They are also working with experts in the field to create guidelines for interviewing and examining the survivors of torture, as well as documenting those findings for medical-legal purposes. The students are also establishing a female genital mutilation workshop, enabling physicians to provide the specialized care these survivors need and deserve.
“Both our projects this year come from gaps identified by our team, health-care workers, community organizations and refugee groups,” said Alphonsus.
“These two projects centre around health-care access concerns and educating health-care workers on topics that are not traditionally covered. It feels full circle to work with amazing organizations such as the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, an organization that my family and I have used,” she added.
Driven by a shared passion
The Newcomer Health Hub was born from the group members’ shared experiences and a passion to light the way for marginalized and underserviced groups.
“We each come from different newcomer populations, and are all children of immigrants or refugees,” said Alphonsus. “We’ve witnessed firsthand how inequity persists across different immigrant and refugee groups in Canada. Our shared experiences allowed the three of us to form an immediate bond, and channel our passion for equitable health care through this initiative.”
The three students began their training at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within their small-group sessions online, they instantly bonded over their shared concern for refugees’ lack of access to much-needed services.
“During COVID-19, many of the resources that refugees, including our family members and friends, use just shut down,” said Alphonsus. “And the populations we serve – many of whom don’t speak English or have access to the Internet – weren’t able to transition to virtual services.”
But the group also saw beyond the pandemic to the increased needs that would come as a result of a lack of access to health-care support systems – such as depression, anxiety and loneliness.
“One population that had it especially hard were refugees who had experienced violence, such as human trafficking, where they were kept in enclosed spaces or not allowed to leave the house,” said DeSilva. The lockdowns experienced during the pandemic were especially triggering for this population, who thought they had escaped these conditions.
“This group of people didn’t know how to use the Internet or didn’t have reliable access to it. And while we could meet our health-care provider or therapist on Zoom, that might not be an option for them.”
With the Newcomer Health Hub, the team has created a collection of unique services to meet the challenges faced by different newcomer populations and the health-care workers who serve them, all through the lens of community customs and experiences.
The goals of the initiative include reducing health-care disparities and advocating for newcomer populations, increasing awareness of the complex backgrounds and unique health-care challenges faced by newcomers, and supporting health-care providers with evidence based and anti-oppressive guidelines tailored to the needs of newcomers.
While still in its early stages, the Hub has logged more than 2,000 unique visitors and 10,000-page views. It’s also an important opportunity for Schulich Medicine students to gain experience providing culturally competent care for refugee and immigrant populations.
“We hope our outreach initiatives will allow us to work with refugees and immigrants more effectively, building further bridges and providing newcomers with the tools they need to take control of their own health,” said Neocleous.
Their medical school colleagues have been quick to help support the program, with approximately 50 medical and nursing students across Canada contributing to ongoing projects. The team is looking to expand the organization and encourages anyone interested to apply on their website.
“The goal is to have medical students come together as a collaborative force to address the health needs of populations that are the most silenced,” said Neocleous.