Helping Refugees in Need: Info for Clinicians in Central New York

By Kathryn Ruscitto, Advisor

Thursday, April 14, 2022

As we watch the faces of mothers and children fleeing war on the news, we must assume some may come to our community. Over the last decade, 7,369 refugees have arrived in Central New York from Africa, the Middle East, Burma, Afghanistan, Nepal and other locations.

Refugees come with special health needs. The Department of Health and Human Services states, “Refugees may face a wide variety of acute or chronic health issues. Examples include infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or intestinal parasites, chronic illnesses such as diabetes or hypertension, and mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.”

Refugees contribute to our communities in so many ways and need our healthcare systems to help them as they find their new paths. There are many area businesses who have built their workforce from these new residents. Providing good health care to refugees means so much more than providing an interpreter service. It means understanding what services are available in our community and being part of the fabric of support they receive. In addition, understanding their culture and what they have experienced in their former countries and how they perceive and understand your plan of care will impact outcomes.

Kathryn Ruscitto, Advisor

The American Academy of Family Physicians has taken a strong advocacy position on behalf of refugees and produced materials — “Building Capacity to Care for Refugees” which offers a variety of checklists and codes — to help healthcare facilities during this time.” (See resources below.)

Others may receive support through community based organizations such as The Center for New Americans at IRC, Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program, Hopeprint in Syracuse and the Refugee Health Clinic at Upstate University Health Care Center.

Andrea Shaw, MD, leads the Upstate team and spoke to me about the things she has found important in her work to assess and treat refugees. “I spend as much time as I can up front, building trust, which builds better outcomes,” she says. “Many come to this country without having experienced or lived in a culture with a functioning health system. The local not-for-profits and religious organizations provide a bridge between health care and help to guide refugees to achieve good health outcomes.” I asked her what advice she would offer other clinicians as they treat refugees. “Keep an open mind and ear to what is going on in their life,” she says. “The social complexity and vulnerability they are facing impacts their health. Know what diseases come from the area they lived in, and know that many have had a lifetime of chronic stress.”

The World Health Organization calls for us to make health systems more accessible and responsive to refugees and migrants and says that means, “providing quality and affordable health coverage as well as social protection for all refugees and migrants regardless of their legal status; making health systems culturally and linguistically sensitive to address the communication barrier; ensuring health care workers are well-equipped and experienced to diagnose and manage common infections and diseases; working better across different sectors that deal with migrant health; and improving collection of data on refugee and migrant health.”

Andrea Shaw, MD and Alyssa Purday MS4 (medical student)
Photo credit: William Mueller

We have been supporting refugees and migrants for many years in this community, and recent events remind us how important access to health care will be in their early days. Is your office accessible? More importantly, what is your level of preparation and collaboration with community-based organizations? Below are some resources to support your teams.