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Vol 39  No 5
Nov. 2, 2006


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Medical students working to help refugee population

by Sharon Gray

Medical students at Memorial University want to improve access to medical help for the refugee population of St. John’s. Last year they established the MUN Med Gateway Project to allow volunteer students to act as patient advocates, and this year they hope to increase the scope of the project.

The project pairs first- and second-year medical student volunteers with a newly-arrived refugee client of the Association for New Canadians (ANC) plus his or her translator. The student takes a medical history, summarizes the history into a two-page report, forwards the report to a doctor previously recruited to take on refugee clients, makes an appointment for the client, sends that information to the ANC for them to pass along to the client, then follows up with clients after their appointment to make sure their introduction to their new family doctor went smoothly.

More than half of the students in the classes of 2008 and 2009 signed up to volunteer, and in June – five months after organizing the project – students held the first interviews.

“We had problems,” acknowledged third-year medical student Monica Kidd, one of the organizers of the project. “For example, one of our translators spoke the wrong dialect (and) we lacked doctors in parts of town where our clients lived. And we couldn’t follow up with our clients after their appointments because without translators we couldn’t phone them.”

Second-year medical student Megan Smith, who has taken over as the student co-ordinator of the project, worked over the summer to recruit students and doctors, and improve the project.

“The problem is to get doctors to understand the project and what we are trying to do,” said Ms. Smith. “Last year we only had five doctors participating and three were in Mount Pearl, so there were transportation issues for the refugees. This year one of our faculty supervisors, Dr. Pauline Duke, is asking many of the graduates of the family medicine residency to participate.”

Medical anthropologist Dr. Fern Brunger, the other faculty supervisor, said there has been great support from the Undergraduate Medical Education Office for infrastructure, primarily in terms of helping with constructing a secure electronic data base, and the students are trying to raise money for incidental expenses such as juice and snacks for the clients. She and Dr. Duke are doing research on the process, and collaborating with Dr. Kevin Pottie of the University of Ottawa on a comparative study of three medical student clinics with new Canadians in St. John’s, Ottawa and Winnipeg.

“There has been an increase in awareness of diversity throughout the university and Eastern Health has a diversity working group,” said Dr. Brunger. “We can’t stereotype people. All people – including doctors – have values that are culturally shaped.”

Dr. Brunger said the research aspect of the Gateway Project is to determine its effectiveness in improving access to health-care services for new Canadians, training medical students in cross-cultural medicine, and providing family physicians with information on the types and range of health care needs and barriers to access to care for new Canadians.

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