Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

Helping newcomers access the healthcare system

[Setareh Ghahari]
Setareh Ghahari, an assistant professor at the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, created ACHIEVE. a program that helps immigrants and refugees learn about how they can get the care that they need. (University Communications) 

As a newcomer to Canada, Setareh Ghahari experienced first-hand some of the challenges faced by newcomers in attempting to access health services.

Despite being a registered occupational therapist with extensive knowledge, experience, and access to resources, she experienced difficulty accessing health-related services. These experiences provided motivation to develop and launch an innovative new program aimed at supporting newcomers to Canada (including groups such as immigrants, refugees, and international students) as they navigate a complex and unfamiliar health system. 

After completing some research, it became clear to Dr. Ghahari that her experience and the barriers she faced in accessing health services were fairly representative. These difficulties are often compounded for immigrants or refugees with significant language barriers, or who are experiencing traumatic personal circumstances. Dr. Ghahari concluded that there was a gap in resources. In other words, there needed to be something in place that could enable newcomers to access the Canadian healthcare system. They need to be educated about what services are available and how they can best be accessed, but newcomers also need help with building networks of support to enable this access to services.

Dr. Ghahari decided that she would develop a program to do this work.

Since coming to Queen’s as an assistant professor at the School of Rehabilitation Therapy in 2014, following the completion of a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Ghahari launched Accessing Canadian Health Care for Immigrants – Empowerment, Voice and Enablement (ACHIEVE). ACHIEVE is a seven-week program that brings immigrants and refugees together to learn how they can get the care that they need in their new country. The program features one two-hour session each week, covering different topics, such as screenings and preventions, finding a family doctor, mental health, and prevention.

Some of the aspects of the program that Dr. Ghahari has found most useful for participants are those that teach newcomers how to use English to communicate about illness. This addresses a serious issue, because immigrants and refugees will wait too long to seek out healthcare because they don’t feel comfortable talking about their conditions in English, even if they are otherwise capable speakers. While many of the newcomers in ACHIEVE have very strong English skills, that does not always mean that they know the specific words to convey pain or sickness. Reinforcing language skills around health is especially important, Dr. Ghahari explains, because people need them most in highly stressful situations – exactly when people often have trouble speaking precisely in their first language, let alone their second.

As a critical part of this work, Dr. Ghahari built partnerships with several community organizations in the Kingston area, including the KEYS Job Centre, Loyola School of Adult and Continuing Education, and Immigrant Services Kingston and Area (ISKA). Immigrants and refugees frequently seek out services at these different centres, so they make for a convenient place to hold the classes. No less important, they are also spaces in which newcomers feel welcome and comfortable.

When ACHIEVE first started, Dr. Ghahari taught every session herself, but now the program has grown and she has trained students in the Queen’s occupational therapy program to deliver the sessions. To help ACHIEVE expand beyond Kingston, she is training ESL teachers and healthcare practitioners, and she is developing online modules that can both deliver the program and train new facilitators.

Even when the program is online, Dr. Ghahari will encourage individuals to participate as part of a group, as this is a fundamental aspect of ACHIEVE – to build a community of support for new Canadians. This all feeds into Dr. Ghahari’s ultimate goals for ACHIEVE: to build and empower communities of newcomers, thereby enabling their access to Canadian healthcare systems while also reducing feelings of vulnerability or social isolation.

This article was first published on the Dean’s Blog. It is written by Richard Reznick, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, with support from Erika Beresford-Kroeger, Online Programs Manager in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, and Andrew Willson, Senior Communications Officer, Faculty of Health Sciences.