As the child of Vietnamese refugees who settled in Seattle, Stephanie Ngo witnessed the challenges her parents faced in the U.S. healthcare system due to the language barrier and cultural differences. Thankfully, they were ultimately able to access quality care at a community health center in the International District that was well-equipped to treat the city’s large and diverse immigrant population. “I was always impressed by this clinic, since all staff were able to speak multiple languages and social workers were readily available to help patients navigate the health system,” says Ngo, a North Carolina Schweitzer Fellow.
Upon moving to Durham to attend Duke University School of Medicine, Ngo hoped to provide a similar service to that city’s burgeoning refugee/immigrant population. In her second year, she began working with Refugee Health Initiative (RHI), a program of University of North Carolina School of Medicine’s Student Action Health Coalition-Outreach. Launched by 2010-11 Schweitzer Fellow Dan White, RHI provides longitudinal home-based health education and works to improve access to care for refugee families. As a Schweitzer Fellow, Ngo teamed up with Trevor Dickey, a Schweitzer Fellow and Duke medical school classmate, to launch an RHI program on the Duke campus to reach out to the many refugee/immigrants in the Durham area.
Dickey joined Ngo in creating the Duke Refugee Health Initiative because “it seemed like a meaningful way to make a difference and work with a wonderful and diverse population of people at the same time,” he says.
Through the Duke Refugee Health Initiative, Dickey, Ngo, and other graduate health students they recruited are paired with refugee families in the Durham area. The students conduct a series of home visits in which they discuss health care-related issues and assist the family in identifying and developing a relationship with a health care provider. Often, they will accompany their partner families to initial medical and health-related appointments.
Until he launched the program, Dickey says he didn’t appreciate just how essential speaking English, and in some cases Spanish, is to obtaining services in the U.S. “Even simple tasks, such as understanding the bills that you are sent or being able to access public transportation, are compounded exponentially in their difficulty when you do not speak the primary language of an area,” he says.
That was certainly the case for the mother of a Vietnamese family with whom Dickey and Ngo have been working. Knowing just a few English-language phrases, she was understandably anxious about leaving her home. After making several trips to the Durham Public Health Department with Dickey and Ngo, the woman recently took the bus on her own to the refugee resettlement agency to pick up some diapers and then made a trip to the health department. “One of our goals in working with her has been to encourage her to have a voice and feel more secure in her abilities,” says Ngo. “We have been gently encouraging the mother to go out more and use the bus system. She’s such an incredibly bright person, and we hope to continue to build her confidence to become more independent.”
“I think her newfound confidence to begin traveling to places she needs to go on her own is more important for her future health than all those trips to the public health department we joined her on,” says Dickey.
In launching the project, Ngo says she has been pleasantly surprised by the excitement and requests to collaborate from other Fellows, advisors, faculty, and other health professions students. “It’s been exciting to delve into all of the work that is going on with the refugee community here in Durham, that we were unaware of before,” she says. “It goes to show how important it is to reach out and find these people, since collectively, we can make so much more of an impact as opposed to alone.”
She adds that she is confident that enthusiasm will help sustain the project after she and Dickey complete their Fellowships. “We created the Duke Refugee Health Initiative with the intention of it continuing as a student group within the Duke graduate community,” says Ngo. “We plan on transitioning into new student leadership this upcoming spring so that we can continue to serve the health needs of the refugee community in a sustainable fashion.”
Aside from securing new leadership for the Duke Refugee Health Initiative, Ngo and Dickey are also looking forward to joining the corps of Fellows for Life when their Fellowship year ends.
“I expect that as I go forward in my career, the community of Schweitzer Fellows will be a source of inspiration,” says Dickey. “The people I have been fortunate enough to meet through the Schweitzer Fellowship have been incredibly driven in their pursuit of service towards others. That is something that has made a huge impression on me and I hope to continue learning from them.”