The Importance of Refugee Care in Family Medicine

The Issue

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Jeffrey Walden, MD

Immigration as a whole, and refugees in particular, have been much in the news for the past several years. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of 2018 about 68.5 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced—more than at any other time in human history.1 Over a third of these people have crossed international borders while fleeing persecution and violence, and have therefore been labeled refugees.

While war and political upheaval have uprooted people for centuries, the plight of those fleeing persecution formally became codified into law with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Based on this definition, a refugee is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”2

The United States has historically resettled between 70,000 and 80,000 refugees per year, with a steep drop-off in the past several years due to changes instituted by the current presidential administration.3 With almost 30 million refugees worldwide, these numbers mean less than 0.3% of the world’s refugees are resettled in the United States in any given year. We as a nation can thereby exercise much discretion when selecting which refugees enter the United States. Indeed, the process to vet potential refugees involves security clearances by numerous federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, and can take upwards of 18 to 36 months.

Historically, the United States has not discriminated a refugee’s case based on his or her ability to integrate. While this ensures granting the most vulnerable equal access to protection and resettlement, refugees may therefore arrive with chronic or serious health problems.4

The Importance to Family Medicine

Although all applicants for refugee status undergo health screening overseas by a trained panel physician, refugees may have had little prior care for any of their longstanding medical issues. Family physicians, whether in academic centers or private practice, therefore often encounter refugee patients after arrival in the United States. Learning to care for these—and by extension other—underserved patients serves an important part of the undergraduate and graduate medical education curriculum.

Refugees form a heterogeneous group, arising from areas of the world as disparate as East and Central Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central and South America. Despite these differences, they have some unifying factors—all refugees have faced persecution, by definition of their status. Many have been subjected to various diseases of poverty and nutritional deficiencies. All will face challenges when resettling in the United States with cultural issues and social determinants of health.

Culturally appropriate care—the type of care typically provided by family physicians—can help these patients better integrate into US society. Assisting refugees along their path toward self-sufficiency and citizenship requires developing strategic partnerships and community engagement. Fostering such relationships can potentially strengthen a clinic’s outreach in the community to address other social determinants of health for all clinic patients.

Involving Learners

Since 2014, the Cone Health Family Medicine Residency Program has sponsored a dedicated refugee and immigrant clinic within our larger family medicine clinic. Structured toward both learners and patients, the clinic serves as an intake evaluation to review the patients’ overseas paperwork, obtain medical and social histories (often the main difference between these patients and “regular” patients), screen for infectious disease, and identify any current needs or issues. The first 30 minutes of each clinic are dedicated to didactic teaching about a specific refugee topic, after which residents interview and examine the patient. The resident who sees that patient then becomes his or her primary care physician. All residents rotate through the clinic during their community medicine rotation:  2 weeks during their second year and 4 weeks during their third year.

Our clinic also serves as a rotational site for visiting third- and fourth-year medical students. This has provided students the opportunity to experience underserved care within a primary care and family medicine context. By working specifically with refugees, learners gain opportunities for advocacy, improvements in cultural humility and competence, and the ability to pursue global health work without needing to find the time or funds to travel.

Due to ongoing worldwide conflicts, issues of migration won’t be going away anytime soon. Exposing learners to such issues can broaden medical education while serving a community need. Beyond that, caring for refugees and learning how they have responded to persecution can teach clinicians valuable lessons about resilience in this time of perceived physician burnout.

Ways to Get Involved

  • Commit to seeing refugee patients in your clinic
  • Develop a refugee, migrant, or other underserved clinic within your program
  • Volunteer at an underserved clinic or health department
  • Conduct medical forensic evaluations for those seeking asylum
  • Complete N-648 certifications—a topic for a future blog post

Further Reading

References

  1. The UN Refugee Agency, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Figures at a Glance. https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html. Accessed May 22, 2019.
  2. The UN Refugee Agency, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention. http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49da0e466.html.
  3. Migration Policy Institute. S. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceilings and Numbers of Refugees Admitted, 1980-Present. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/us-annual-refugee-resettlement-ceilings-and-number-refugees-admitted-united. Accessed May 22, 2019.
  4. Hebrank K. Introduction to Refugees. In: Annamalai A, ed. Refugee Health Care: An Essential Medical Guide. New York: Springer Science; 2014:3-11. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4939-0271-2_1

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