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Op-ed: Lauren Law and Simal Qureshi

N.L. must expand interpretation services to improve newcomer health, say MD students

By Lauren Law and Simal Qureshi

Newcomers to Newfoundland and Labrador bring with them many strengths and assets.

However, our province’s health-care services are not adequately equipped to support them.

Pairing tangible goals with the potential for action, Memorial University medical students are asking the provincial government to reduce the barriers newcomers face when accessing primary care services.

How can we do this?

By strengthening language and communication.

Newcomer Trends

In 2022 Canada welcomed 431,000 new permanent residents, representing the largest number of newcomers in any other year.

With the growing number of residents, it is only fair our provinces do an equitable job promoting newcomer retention, success and community growth.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, newcomer populations increased from April 1 to July 1, 2022.

“Those barriers can reduce their incentive to stay in the province longer term.”

These new residents are an important source of population growth, bringing vibrancy, prosperity and economic success.

Research shows about 50 per cent of newcomers fill jobs in highly skilled occupations in areas that tend to experience employee shortages, such as social science, education and health care.

This has significant and positive implications for local economic growth and stability.

However, newcomers often face barriers that make healthy living and community integration difficult.

Those barriers can reduce their incentive to stay in the province longer term.

Four main barriers

Newcomers to Canada often arrive in their new communities feeling alone, having left friends and family in their home country.

Social isolation, coupled with the challenges of adapting to a new culture, adds to the difficulty of navigating a new health-care system and availing of medical resources.

Four main barriers to newcomer health have been identified: poor adaptation to cultural differences; lack of financial resources; low English proficiency; and lack of translation about available health-related help.

Newcomers are often unaware of how to access or navigate health-care services, instead seeking much of their care from specialists, walk-in clinics and emergency rooms.

Poor knowledge translation about their health reduces their understanding of preventive care and continuity of care.

“It is crucial to implement appropriate language interpretation services.”

This can lead to more complex and chronic health conditions.

It can also be challenging for physicians to effectively support newcomers as patients.

This is due in part to the increased financial and labour burden of navigating language barriers.

A lack of language services for newcomers limits the opportunity to develop a strong therapeutic patient-physician relationship and makes it challenging for newcomers to express their health concerns.

For this reason, it is crucial to implement appropriate language interpretation services.

This will decrease physician burnout and improve newcomers’ physical and mental well-being. In fact, social support and language services have been linked to lower rates of morbidity and mortality, and can be protective of newcomers’ health.

Current limitations

Currently, a few community organizations in the province work with newcomers to help them feel comfortable, welcome and successful in their new surroundings.

These organizations include the Association for New Canadians and the Refugee Health Collaborative.

The most extensive language services are offered at Eastern Health through the Remote Interpretation Ontario Network, francophone services, Indigenous patient navigation and visual language interpretation.

“All languages are welcome here, and our health care services must reflect this ideal.”

Western and Labrador-Grenfell Health authorities provide limited language services, and Central Health provides no language services.

This represents a significant gap in our health-care services’ ability to adequately meet the needs of our underrepresented and underserved populations.

Therefore, we are calling on the provincial government to expand interpretation services to improve newcomer health in three key areas: all health authorities; all pharmacies; and all private clinics.

Effective communication is key to delivering inclusive health-care services.

Recognition of diversity and celebration of multiculturalism is important in Newfoundland and Labrador.

All languages are welcome here, and our health care services must reflect this ideal.

Implementing interpretation services intersects with various social determinants of health, including social inclusion and access to medical services.

When appropriate supports are available in walk-in clinics, emergency rooms and other health-care facilities, newcomers are empowered to navigate the health-care system confidently and comfortably.

Inclusion, acceptance and diversity

Immigrating to a new country is far from simple.

It involves resilience, strength and, most importantly, community support.

Currently, Newfoundland and Labrador is not meeting newcomers’ needs.

Increasing interpretation services is an excellent starting point to cultivate inclusive change in this area.

Our province must work towards promoting newcomer retention while fostering success and support for these underserved communities.

Our asks will not only empower our new fellow Canadians.

They will also play a role in the future of this province’s diversity, economic growth and resident well-being.

Annually, medical students at Memorial University organize provincial days of action to bring awareness to politicians about a gap in the health-care system and demonstrate the need for enacting positive change.

From March 20–24, students will meet with policymakers and members of the House of Assembly to present their research and propose changes to better the health of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

We would like to thank the provincial day of action working group, the research team and our co-chairs, Olivia Penney and Connor O’Brien, for their support in preparing everyone for the 2023 provincial days of action.

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