Health Histories: New migrant experiences of primary healthcare

With growing media and public focus on two distinct areas of public policy; migration and healthcare, do we understand the interrelation between them? A recent IRiS project, led by Dr Antje Lindenmeyer examined the health histories of migrants in Birmingham, helping to uncover key insights into their health seeking behaviours and the impact this has on the NHS.  Contrary to public perceptions, particularly in light of the recent UK vote on the EU referendum, which highlighted concerns over the pressure placed on public services by the migrant population, new migrants are less likely to seek primary healthcare for a number of cultural and economic reasons.

Many migrants bring a perception of health and wellbeing and the healthcare system from their country of birth or place of most recent settlement. Our research highlighted that in many countries, informal support networks are in operation, with many utilising family and friends for health advice rather than seeking immediate medical advice for any health concerns. There are also different perceptions of health and wellbeing, many migrants reported they had not come across the term “wellbeing” before. Health was seen in relation to physical factors and meant that seeking access to a GP or other services was more likely to be limited to physical health. New migrants have brought this understanding of healthcare with them to the UK, meaning they are less likely to use the NHS and may well be less of a “burden” than political rhetoric has suggested.

There are also a number of barriers in place. Language and lack of adequate translation also inhibits many migrants when they do need to access healthcare. Many reported that due to limited English they would not be inclined to seek out assistance unless it was critical. A number of project participants also felt that they could not adequately convey their condition or did not fully understand the medical advice of GP’s and other professionals. This led to a sense of frustration with the level of care received and some feeling that doctors were not taking the right approach to treating them. In some cases this also led to participants having to visit A&E at a point of “crisis” as their medical needs had not been picked up at an earlier stage.

In terms of what can be learned from the study it is clear that migrant’s experience of healthcare can be improved. Lack of translation services, NHS charges and limited knowledge of primary care can lead to poor care, health inequalities and further cost to the public purse to remedy the ill effects of poor provision in the initial instance. Migrants also bring a wider understanding of healthcare and how to support themselves. They are less likely to seek unnecessary health interventions and rely on a wider network of advice and assistance such as family rather than going straight to a GP. Many also exhibited clear understanding of the need to live a healthier lifestyle through diet and exercise rather than a reliance on medication. This places less emphasis on service use, saving resource and cost on an already overstretched NHS.

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