Calgary doctors help refugees connect with key Canadian health services

A unique online tool designed by researchers at the University of Calgary is helping refugees in Canada connect with important health care and settlement support.

The Atlas of Canada’s refugee healthcare system provides information and links for 146 organizations across the country, including primary care clinics treating refugees, public health clinics and settlement services.

The Atlas, which is free and presents the information on a searchable map, is offered in a number of languages ​​including English, French, Dari, Ukrainian and Arabic, with plans to add more.

“We put that information on a map and made it available so people could search by name or city and find the resources in their city,” said Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, co-leader of the project and associate professor at the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary.

The idea came to Fabreau and his colleague, Dr. Annalee Coakley, as they worked at the Calgary refugee clinic and rushed to deal with the rapid influx of Syrian refugees that began in 2015.

“It became clear that no one really had a playbook, and the health care system for Canada wasn’t really written down anywhere, despite Canada being a world leader in refugee resettlement for 70 years,” Fabreau said.

Designed to help refugees, and those helping them settle, navigate a complex system involving multiple levels of government, agencies and healthcare providers, the Atlas aims to fill some key gaps.

The doctors stand in front of the United Nations flag and the Canadian flag.
Dr. Annalee Coakley and Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, co-directors of Refugee Health YYC at the University of Calgary, launched a new version of the online tool in April. They are now working with the World Health Organization and the UN Refugee Agency to make the Atlas an international instrument. (Submitted by Annalee Coakley)

“It’s incredibly difficult for our patients to navigate,” said Coakley, co-director of Refugee Health YYC at the University of Calgary, noting that the federal government handles immigration, while health care falls under provincial jurisdiction.

“There is a lack of coordination between these two levels of government.”

The doctors saw the need to collect accessible information in one place.

“We [were] trying to find a better way to integrate those things,” Fabreau added.

The third version of the Atlas, which has grown in size, was launched in April. Coakley said she’s already seeing the impact.

It gives refugees the opportunity to find the specialized care they need, she said, and improves the transition of care.

‘Which the Atlas now allows [Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada] what we need to do is reach out to refugees’ healthcare providers in the destination city to help them prepare for a medically complex new arrival.

Impact on the patient

Coakley recently treated two patients with kidney failure who required dialysis. The federal government employee was able to contact the refugee clinic in advance so that preparations could be made for their treatment.

According to Coakley, this did not happen before.

In the past, she said, medically fragile refugees often ended up in the emergency room needing intensive medical attention without prior notice to staff.

“This map allows the coordinator to get an overview of resources across the country,” she said.

Dr.  Annalee Coakley stands in front of a podium and speaks to a crowd.  The health atlas of refugees can be seen on a screen behind her.
The doctors presented their work to the World Health Organization in the fall. (Submitted by Annalee Coakley)

“That not only helps the patient himself, but it also helps the system as a whole, because no one has to wait in the emergency room. Things are planned and thought through and then they receive the necessary care. So it is efficient. It is cost effective. It’s good health care for the patient.”

Coakley said it also helps with secondary migration by allowing healthcare providers in one Canadian city to connect refugees with the right care in another city.

The Atlas also collects detailed information collected from the organizations, including the types of care offered, the patient populations served, and the health care workforce.

Interactive migration data, including the type of refugees and displaced persons – such as asylum seekers, private and government-sponsored refugees and evacuees – is also included to help providers and policymakers understand trends and demand for services and plan for future surges.

The doctors presented their work to the World Health Organization in the fall.

Since then, they have received more funding, which has allowed them to revamp the site.

According to Fabreau, they are now working with the WHO and the UN Refugee Agency and hope to expand the Atlas into an international instrument.

“That’s the most exciting thing…Discovering this Canadian-made innovation has the potential to help other people around the world.”

‘That has been the case for twelve years in a row [forced migration] has grown. It’s a global problem. No country can do this alone.”

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