How to heal refugees

Wed, 20 Jun 2018
How to heal refugees

A James Cook University medical student is conducting groundbreaking research into how to better meet the healthcare needs of newly arrived refugees in North Queensland.

Fifth-year student, Michael Au’s honours research project is inspired by his Vietnamese father who reached Australia by boat in 1982, and is the first to examine the healthcare experiences of refugees living in Townsville.

It is one of only a handful of similar studies ever undertaken in regional Australia.

“Last year, the Queensland Government released the Refugee Health and Wellbeing policy to address this issue, so it is now a state health priority,” Mr Au said.

Mr Au’s keen interest in refugee healthcare stems from his own father’s experiences as a Vietnamese refugee who struggled to navigate an unfamiliar health system when he fell ill.

His father plunged into depression after learning of a relative’s death in Vietnam but when a doctor informed him that he had a mental illness, he rejected the diagnosis and ignored conventional treatment, because in his culture at that time mental problems were synonymous with being “crazy”.

“Now that I am a medical student, it makes me upset, that due to cultural and language barriers, Dad misunderstood or didn't fully understand his condition and did not receive the most appropriate care,” Mr Au said.

His father recovered, but poor health literacy remains a hurdle for refugees - one of a series of issues that Mr Au plans to explore during his research project, which will be based on in-depth interviews with health service providers in Townsville, as well as refugees recently arrived from strife-torn countries such as Sudan, Somalia and Congo.

His research partners will include the Townsville Multicultural Support Group, Townsville Multicultural Health Network, and Refugee Health Network Queensland.

“We need to learn what are the barriers and the enablers to delivering health services to newly arrived refugees. The evidence we collect can then be used to inform the more effective allocation of health resources,” he said.

“At the end of the day, this is a social justice issue. We’re helping those in the community who often don't have a voice.”