When Demissie Tadesse Diressie started work with Refugee Services Aotearoa New Zealand in May 2011 as the organisation’s new Principal Advisor on Refugee Health and Wellbeing, his first goal was to identify significant barriers for former refugees in New Zealand when it comes to accessing the nation’s healthcare system.
Using his own experience as a general practitioner and Deputy Minister of Health in Ethiopia in combination with consultation with former refugees, Demissie has developed Refugee Services’ new health and wellbeing programme, and in December, Refugee Services received funding from J R McKenzie Trust and the Todd Foundation to implement the programme in the new year.
The goal of the programme is to enable refugees to have improved access to the healthcare system and develop their capacity to be in charge of their own health. “We all, including government, expect health outcomes for refugees that are equal to those of other New Zealanders,” says Demissie. “If this is our goal, then we have to recognise that former refugees are not starting out on equal ground and that it will take extra effort to achieve those equal outcomes.”
When former refugees first arrive in New Zealand, many suffer from health problems as a result of where they have been living. Their health issues are often exacerbated by the fact that many of them may have little health education or experience with very different healthcare systems.
“They get here and they face language barriers, a new and very complex health system, transportation issues, and much more,” says Demissie, “so it’s important for us to develop this new strategy for overcoming those challenges.”
Key focuses of the new programme are household health and educating parents as the primary producers of health in families. “We want to raise awareness about common and preventable public health problems including prevention and management of accidents and injuries, first aid, when to seek professional medical help, how to prevent communicable and non-communicable diseases, and so on,” says Demissie.
Now that the programme has received funding, the first steps will be to gather information about current health behaviour, create appropriate educational materials and develop the new community health worker role. “Community health workers will have significant contact with families in the early stages of their resettlement,” says Demissie. “They will impart the knowledge onto the families by visiting them, discussing issues and creating awareness. As culturally competent and responsive health promoters, they will also become an important bridge between former refugees and the public healthcare system.”
“One of the five key outcome areas in the New Zealand Refugee Resettlement Strategy is health and wellbeing, and we are very grateful to J R McKenzie Trust and the Todd Foundation for their support to put in place a programme to help communities improve their health statistics in this area,” says Refugee Services’ Chief Executive Heather Hayden. “We look forward to seeing an increase in immunisation coverage, reductions in avoidable hospitalisation, and many other positive indicators that show the programme is contributing to equitable health outcomes for former refugees.
“Ultimately, the success of the programme will depend on collaboration with our partners and stakeholders, especially the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social Development, Regional Public Health, and practices who provide health services to former refugees. At the end of the day, this isn’t just important for members of the refugee community,” adds Heather. “This is important to New Zealand as a whole.”