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  • Writer's pictureMo Zaatar

Healthcare And Australian Migrants: Navigating Some Challenging Waters

healthcare and Australian migrants

Australia is a lucky country, and one of the most compelling cases for why that is is our healthcare system. It has its challenges, but Australian healthcare attracts world-renowned doctors, our medical education system is excellent at training local doctors and, overall, access to healthcare professionals – including specialists is reasonable.

However, the jewel in the crown is Medicare, our universal healthcare system. This is a right that all Australians enjoy, and it provides essential health services to its residents at heavily subsidised or no cost, making most critical health services affordable regardless of your financial circumstances.

The problem is that it’s not necessarily available to migrants. This system does extend its services to some: refugees, humanitarian entrants, and eligible asylum seekers do have a safety net for their healthcare needs upon their arrival. Additionally, those migrants who have progressed to a permanent resident visa or citizenship also automatically qualify for Medicare.

However, international students and skilled employees here on a 457 visa do not, for the most part, have access to Medicare. Australia maintains a reciprocal healthcare agreement with the following countries: Belgium, Finland, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK. People from these countries can, for the most part, access services via Medicare. For everyone else here on a temporary visa, however, it will be important to find alternative healthcare arrangements. And even then, many find themselves needing to ask for some support from back home to cover the bills.

I don’t qualify for Medicare, what can I do?

The Australian government does require that migrants have healthcare insurance as a condition of their visa. It is something that you’ll need to organise before you arrive in the country. Most migrants to Australia have two choices for healthcare until they gain permanent residency and then quality for Medicare:

Overseas Student Health Cover (OSHC): If the migrant is an international student, they might be covered by the Overseas Student Health Cover offered by select health funds. This is generally a lower-cost option that still meets the requirements of the government for granting a student visa. The lowest cost of minimum cover is $478 for 12 months of cover for singles. Note, however, that while this is very low-cost, it’s also very limited. For those who want peace of mind that they’re properly covered in the event that they do need care, standard private health insurance is a better way to go.

Private Health Insurance: Migrants can consider purchasing private health insurance to cover any health-related expenses. Private healthcare policies can vary wildly in cost, and it’s important to shop around since the less expensive private healthcare options will have significant gaps in coverage, meaning that, even though you have insurance, you may still need to pay the full amount for a range of treatments.

What makes healthcare hard for migrants?

Language barriers and financial constraints are among the foremost obstacles that migrants and refugees face when seeking healthcare services. These challenges often result in poorer health outcomes for these communities, as they may not fully understand their medical conditions, have limited access to preventive care, or delay seeking medical attention due to financial concerns.

Language Barriers: A lot of the healthcare industry uses English exclusively. Whether it is insurers explaining what is and isn’t covered in a certain policy, or the language that the doctor will talk to you in, if your English isn’t of a fairly high level, you might struggle to fully understand what is going on, and that can be stressful and frightening. If you have a specific need to interact with the healthcare industry, you might want to consider retaining the services of a translator or finding a friend who understands and can speak English well to go with you.

Financial Concerns: Everyone knows that healthcare can be expensive, and many migrants, particularly those who have recently arrived, may fear high medical bills. Even if you are covered by insurance, there are excesses and other fees applicable that can make the subsidised trip to a doctor an expensive affair. This is concerning because it can mean that people “put off” going to the doctor (or, worse, don’t go at all), even as their health starts to fail.

Cultural Sensitivity: Cultural differences in healthcare practices and beliefs can also be a challenge. Some migrants may come from cultures with different attitudes towards healthcare - such as Muslims with their dietary requirements, or sensitivities around modesty, which can affect their utilisation of healthcare services. Healthcare providers need to be culturally sensitive to better understand and accommodate these differences, and while many are getting better, some – particularly in regional Australia – have a journey to go on.

Transportation: Depending on where you live, the lack of accessible transportation options can also be a significant hurdle. While the cities generally have decent public transport, regional Australia does not. Furthermore, if you need to start seeing specialists, you may well be required to travel some distance to visit them, if a telehealth consultation won’t be adequate for the consultation. These challenges are exasperated if there are mobility issues that can make public transport difficult.

The long and short of it is that Australia’s healthcare system is imperfect for migrants. What Australian citizens can take for granted, migrants often struggle with. The best advice is to find the most comprehensive private healthcare policy that you can afford and keep a pool of savings as well, to help cover the excess and other expenses that your insurance policy doesn’t account for.

What could help make healthcare more accessible for migrants?

There are several things that could be done to help make healthcare more understandable and accessible to Australian migrants. These include:

Culturally Appropriate Health Interventions: Training healthcare professionals to be culturally aware, accommodating dietary restrictions, and considering cultural norms in treatment plans would all go a long way to help migrants feel like their doctors understand them and their situation. Australia is a diverse and multicultural society. Any public-facing worker, including all healthcare professionals, would benefit from this training.

Multilingual Health Resources: Similarly, Australia has got to understand that healthcare is complex, and scary, and asking migrants to grapple with it in their second language is often challenging to them. Developing multilingual health resources and providing interpreters in healthcare settings can significantly improve communication and understanding between patients and healthcare providers. Likewise, insurance companies should be encouraged to provide information and resources in the most common languages spoken in Australia, so migrants can make better informed decisions.

Accessible Transportation: It seems like a small thing, but helping migrants get to their doctor or hospital is important. Public transport is there, but providing shuttle buses and other such services can help, especially when public transport is a non-ideal option.

Embrace telehealth: Through the pandemic, the use of telehealth increased rapidly, thanks to government promotion of it as a contactless solution through COVID. However, there are many other benefits to telehealth too, as it allows more doctors to see more patients from around Australia, and features such as translation tools can be built in over time. For migrants that are working in rural or regional areas, this would be one effective way to immediately improve the standards of healthcare they can access.

Community support: Organisations like the Multicultural Communities Council of South Australia (MCCSA) and the Australian Red Cross have been instrumental in implementing programs and initiatives aimed at improving health access, experience, and outcomes for migrants. We need more of those organisations and the resources and support that they can provide.

Healthcare should not be stressful to migrants

As a multicultural society, Australia is doing better than many places around the world with healthcare - including the likes of America and the UK, but there is always more that can be done, especially with regards to supporting migrants. . Students and those here for their skills (457 visa) should not be treated as second-class citizens, given that they are contributing to society, paying taxes, and living here with us. They shouldn’t worry about whether they can afford to be looked after in their new home.

For now, however, simply making sure that migrants are able to understand and navigate the complexities of the Australian healthcare system will help ensure that the experience of their new home is not undermined by a stressful, expensive, and confusing visit to a doctor or stay at a hospital.

Helpful resources

For people who need more information, here are some helpful links:


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