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Responding to the health literacy needs of refugee background people

Where do you get your health information from? Do you ask you friends, family members, your GP, or search the internet?

Imagine for people of refugee background who are new to the country, probably can’t understand English, don’t have friends of family members who can help, have limited access to transport to get to a health service, let alone know where one is – the list goes on.

Health literacy is a person’s ability to obtain, understand and apply basic health information and health services to make appropriate decisions about their health. Low health literacy is inextricably linked to poor health outcomes. Individuals with limited health literacy have higher rates of illness and more hospitalisations.

Whilst providing understandable and relevant information is one thing, enabling people to communicate freely in their own language is important. Professional interpreters provide a language service with strict parameters. Bicultural workers, however, may assist people to navigate health services, get to appointments and negotiate expectations. They can also support clinicians to understand different health beliefs and social circumstances that may affect a person’s decision making.

Communication techniques such as ‘teach-back’ offer clinicians a method to encourage two-way participation.  Teach-back is an evidence-based communication strategy that requires health professionals to ask the individual to repeat back what they have explained - in their own words.

The Centre for Culture Ethnicity and Health and St Vincent’s Hospital have a produced a short video demonstrating how it can be incorporated into a health consultation:

However, there is no evidence or instructions for how this method works when an interpreter is involved in the health consultation. A small change, such as using teach-back with the assistance of an interpreter could make a big difference for supporting refugee background people to become health literate in their new county.   

We need to ensure that people new to Australia, particularly those who have survived horrific experiences and are likely to have ongoing trauma symptoms, have the confidence, support and resources to be healthy.

For more information please read Improving health literacy in refugee populations by Elisha Riggs, Jane Yelland, Philippa Duell-Piening and Stephanie J Brown published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

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