Researchers at forefront of global innovation in refugee health

Canadian Refugee Healthcare Atlas at heart of efforts to reshape life for refugees around the world

For refugees arriving in Canada, accessing the resources needed to start their new life can be confusing. Access to needed services can be fragmented and seem out of reach. A digital tool launched by University of Calgary health researchers is offering help - and attracting global attention.

The Canadian Refugee Healthcare System Altas provides information on more than 190 refugee and newcomer health-care organizations across Canada. It tracks and displays data about a refugee’s category, such as whether they are an evacuee, a sponsored refugee or government-assisted refugee. It displays when and where a person settled in Canada. Researchers are currently piloting the use of artificial intelligence for translations. 

The atlas provides new arrivals navigating Canada’s complex health system with up-to-date links to services, improves the ability of service providers to collaborate between sectors and improve supports, and offers policy-makers access to the data needed to enhance health policy and better allocate resources where they are needed most.

"It’s like Google Maps for health care," says Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, BSc’04, MD’08, co-lead of the research. "All the information each of these stakeholders needs to improve refugee health is available in one location. That’s a first for Canada, and it’s overdue."

Fabreau  is co-lead of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health’s Refugee Health YYC , a platform for research, innovation and education in refugee health that has operated since 2019 . He says the atlas, launched this year, is in its infancy and has the potential to impact the care of refugees internationally.

The atlas is a multidisciplinary partnership involving researchers from the Cumming School of Medicine ’s (CSM) O’Brien Institute for Public Health , Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and Centre for Health Informatics , which developed the digital dashboard.
It was recently accepted into the SPARK Alberta  program, which is funded by Alberta Innovates to advance digital health innovation and is part of CSM’s W21C Research and Innovation Centre. UCalgary’s  School of Public Policy is providing expertise on enhancing government policy. The project uses data gathered from Statistics Canada and past CSM and Refugee Health YYC research sources.

Fabreau and project co-lead Dr. Annalee Coakley, MD, speak internationally about their refugee health research. This year that includes a  meeting co-organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Copenhagen, Denmark and an international health forum in Geneva, Switzerland. The meetings offered a rare opportunity for those who respond to global public health emergencies to come together and share their experiences. 

"Our research is the first to use a toolkit for supporting refugee health that was created by the WHO to improve health outcomes globally," says Coakley. 

The School of Public Policy, led by research director Dr. Myles Leslie, PhD, hosted a workshop involving policy-makers, clinical experts, settlement providers and others last summer to develop recommendations for improving refugee health care and participated in the health forum in Geneva advising on public policy.

Refugee arrivals in Canada rising

The current number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has exploded in the last decade and is now unprecedented, says Fabreau. Last week the UNHCR released its annual report estimating more than  117 million people are affected. About 40 per cent of refugees globally are children and mothers. Canada is seeing an increase in forcibly displaced refugees in recent years from places like Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Middle East and several others.

"We face major data problems in refugee health," Fabreau says. "Refugees are mobile and health systems are static. We urgently need an innovative global approach to address these limitations."

For example, refugees departing for Canada complete a pre-departure health check and another health check occurs upon arrival. But that data is not shared with health providers or researchers. The federal government and 13 independently operating provincial health systems could also be more co-ordinated on sharing refugee health data, Fabreau says.

"There is an opportunity to embed data collection more seamlessly across clinics and care facilities. The patients themselves become the owners of their own data, essentially holders of a mobile health passport," he says.

"When a refugee arrives in Canada, they have no understanding of how the health system works or where to go for resources that can assist them. I have been working in refugee health for 20 years. The atlas and a refugee passport represent opportunities to significantly improve the co-ordination of support for these people who are arriving at our border in increasing numbers," he says.

Engaging refugees in health research

Refugee Health YYC is partnered with the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic, which is among the largest specialized refugee health clinics in Canada.  Fabreau says the project is a great example of how community-engaged research works, calling it a ’fundamental tenant’ of their study. 

"In order us to be successful, refugees coming to Canada must be fully engaged. As researchers, we must build their trust and get buy-in before we start engaging them about gathering data and embedding research within the care we provide. It all comes down to trust," he says.

View the atlas.  Fabreau says they are collaborating with the WHO to expand the atlas internationally. World Refugee Day, an international day designated by the United Nations to honour refugees around the globe, is June 20.