Refugee and Migrant Health
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Managing the health of refugees and migrants can be complex. Many refugees have little experience of organised healthcare, and may have come from places of extreme poverty and danger and may have suffered physical and mental traumas. This can mean that refugees find themselves overwhelmed when faced with a developed medical system.

There are thought to be over 65 million refugees worldwide.

  • The UK accepts around 15,000 refugees each year
  • Australia accepts about 13,000 refugees per year

Diseases that are rare in developed countries may affect refugee populations, and are frequently missed as they may be asymptomatic or dismissed as being of little significance by sufferers or their families. They can be missed without appropriate screening. As well as infectious disease, nutritious disorders and chronic disease are common. Patients may never have been exposed to screening (e.g. cervical smears) or vaccination programs, and thus may be relatively “behind” compared to local populations. Mental health issues secondary to trauma are extremely common.

One study of refugee children in Australia found:

Don’t forget than in addition to this, refugees will also suffer from all the usual developed country health issues that you see ind ay to day practice! nHowever, these more familiar issues are often exacerbated by communication and language difficulties.


When meeting a new arrival for the first time, taking a detailed history is important. Ask about:

  • The presenting problem
  • Reasons for migration
  • Exposure to physical violence or torture
  • Psychological trauma
  • Family history – including haemoglobinopathy
  • PMHx – including tropical diseases and chronic diseases
  • Immunisation
  • Developmental history (in children)
  • Diet
  • Drug addiction history – particularly IV drugs
  • Smoking
  • Mental health history
    • Particularly suicide risk
  • Oral Health
  • Women’s health including contraception and pap smear


Screening investigations for new arrivals


  • Blood
    • FBC
    • UEC
    • ESR
    • U+E
    • LFT
    • Vitamin D levels
    • Vitamin B12 levels
    • Iron studies
  • TB investigations
    • CXR
    • Mantoux test
    • interferon gamma release assay
  • Malaria investigations
    • Thick and thin films
    • Plasmodium rapid antigen test
  • Blood borne virus screen
  • STI screen
    • Syphilis serology
    • PCR for chlamydia and gonorrhoea
  • Parasites
  • Consider referral to specialist refugee clinics and refugee services


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Dr Tom Leach

Dr Tom Leach MBChB DCH EMCert(ACEM) FRACGP currently works as a GP and an Emergency Department CMO in Australia. He is also a Clinical Associate Lecturer at the Australian National University, and is studying for a Masters of Sports Medicine at the University of Queensland. After graduating from his medical degree at the University of Manchester in 2011, Tom completed his Foundation Training at Bolton Royal Hospital, before moving to Australia in 2013. He started almostadoctor whilst a third year medical student in 2009. Read full bio

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