A migrant woman is at the hospital. Her baby has died. She is handed a note, written in English, informing her of the loss.

A husband and wife, from a migrant background, sit in the doctor’s office. The wife has been experiencing health concerns. Throughout the meeting, the doctor exclusively addresses the husband as he talks about the woman’s medical condition.

An international student visits a medical centre, very ill. He is told he needs to return in two weeks. Meanwhile, a woman born in Australia, who has also not made an appointment, is seen immediately.

These were some of the instances brought to light at the most recent Multicultural Sexual Health Network (MSHN): “Racism in Healthcare” forum.

On Thursday April 19, guest speakers and Multicultural Community Action Network (M-CAN) members gathered at The Multicultural Hub to explore the racism embedded in everyday practices and broader systemic and organisational structures.

Throughout the session, experts working in multicultural health and other migrant and refugee services, and community members with personal experiences of racism discussed healthcare, the ramifications of this racism – both to the individual and broader society – and ways to prevent such discrimination in the future.

Community members participating in a panel discussion spoke about the way racism in healthcare not only diminishes health outcomes – it can also have a range of other side effects. An individual who experiences racism may feel isolated, depressed and withdrawn, which can lead to serious health concerns and challenges in a person’s mental and physical health. Studies have shown that racism in everyday life is damaging; racism in healthcare is potentially the most harmful.

Racism does not just hurt the individual. The negative ramifications extend more broadly, hurting the family unit, neighbourhoods and Australia as a whole. Gulnara Abbasova, Executive Officer at the Migrant and Refugee Women’s Partnership, spoke about the particular groups most effected. While individuals from migrant and refugee backgrounds are more likely to receive poorer healthcare, women from these backgrounds are likely to suffer the most. Abbasova related many examples where racism intersected with sexism to create a toxic environment for women who desperately need medical attention. Health issues, particularly sexual health concerns, can be a very sensitive area for many women. This is why it is integral that clinicians provide culturally responsive care, including engaging interpreters where necessary.

Robert Gruhn, Acting Senior Policy Officer at the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria (ECCV), spoke about this need. The ECCV Policy Position Paper found that “culturally diverse health consumers find it hard to communicate with health professionals in English”. A community panel, made up of health professionals and community members, similarly discussed the obstacles CALD individuals face.

An individual with developed English skills may still have a better understanding of their anatomy and other health terms in their first language. By encouraging and improving healthcare access, practitioners and the government can prevent medical conditions from worsening. These conditions become a huge strain on the individual, their family and the healthcare system. The purpose of the ECCV paper is to improve an individual’s health through the use of interpreters: “The ability to access health services and information is vital for culturally diverse consumers to live a high quality of life.”

Improving access to interpreters is one way to break down cultural and linguistic barriers to good healthcare. Yin Paradies, Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Race Relations at Deakin University, offered the following suggestions for responding to racism:

  • Respond to racism calmly, rationally and non-defensively when you experience or witness it
  • Don’t label someone racist but note how there might be racism in their words or actions
  • Dispel myths and false beliefs when you encounter them
  • Encourage individuals to renew efforts to give everyone a ‘fair go’
  • Help others to understand what it feels like to be someone from another culture
  • Encourage people to spend time with, and learn from, people from diverse cultural backgrounds

Racism exists on both a systemic and personal level. This means that racism needs to be addressed in a variety of ways. Continued measures to prevent discrimination – through policy changes, personal reflection and ongoing conversation – provide all those living in Australia with a fairer shot at a healthy, happy life.

The Multicultural Sexual Health Network (MSHN) is a platform that brings together stakeholders from different sectors, such as health, youth, settlement, education, employment and housing to discuss strategies to address emerging blood borne viruses and sexually transmissible infections  affecting asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and international students.