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Doctors making a difference: Refugee health

Nova Scotia has welcomed almost 1,100 Syrian refugees since December 2015. Refugees face a wide range of health problems, including higher rates of infectious diseases, mental health concerns, and chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. Refugees also encounter difficulties in accessing the health-care system, including legal and eligibility requirements, and language barriers.

The Transitional Health Clinic for Refugees (THCR) in Halifax provides newcomers with a post-arrival health assessment. Patients receive up-to-date vaccinations, management of chronic diseases and routine primary care.

“Due to their sometimes complicated health history and difficulty navigating the health-care system,” said Dr. Tim Holland, one of the THCR’s founding physicians, “refugees are disproportionately disadvantaged by not having a family doctor.”

After a year, the THCR helps refugee patients transition from the clinic to a family practice. Dr. Karen Prokai, a family physician in Halifax, is one doctor who added a refugee family to her patient roster.

“I felt quite helpless watching the Syrian crisis unfold,” said Dr. Prokai. “When I received the online request for doctors willing to open their practice for a Syrian refugee family, I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to do to make a difference.”

There were some initial hurdles, said Dr. Prokai, including the language barrier, the amount of time required for visits, and the lack of previous medical records. But they were all surmountable, with help from translator services and a nurse who speaks Arabic, careful scheduling, and help from colleagues.

Dr. Prokai said that the rewards of adding a Syrian family to her practice far outweigh the challenges.

“As you address their health needs and get to know them you slowly earn their trust,” said Dr. Prokai. “Spending extra time to explain illness, test results and treatment options relieves any patient’s anxiety; Syrian refugee patients are no different than any other patient in this way.”

“These families are here because they had to leave their country to save themselves and their children,” said Dr. Prokai. “As a parent and a physician, it’s not that hard for me to open my practice for one family. I know I’ve made a difference, and collectively we could do so much more.”

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