Helping new arrivals to be medicinewise: medicines and refugees in Australia

1 October 2013

Australia has resettled over 750,000 refugees since Federation in 1901. With around 20,000 refugees settling in Australia this year, a new editorial in Australian Prescriber sheds some light on some of the particular health issues unique to this group.

According to Dr Mitchell Smith, Director of the NSW Refugee Health Service, Dr Winston Lo, medical educator at GP Synergy and Jessica Bindra from the University of NSW, many of the medicine-related issues that refugees face are the same as those affecting other migrants, but some factors are accentuated.

Refugees often move about in the early months of their settlement and may not understand the importance of having a regular healthcare provider. This could mean that they are prescribed the same medicine more than once.

The editorial discusses how religious and cultural beliefs and limited health literacy can affect health care for refugees. For example, the concept of preventive care — where a patient may have to take a medicine in the long term to avoid health problems later in life — may be something some refugees are not familiar with.

“Keeping a list of all the medicines you take can help to make sure the doctor knows everything that you’re taking, and will help to avoid medicine mistakes,” say the authors.

“It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether you’re using any traditional medicines including medicines from overseas. Traditional, complementary, alternative or herbal medicines can interact with a prescribed or over-the-counter medicine, either reducing how well the medicines work or increasing the risk of side effects.

“Communication is vital – health professionals and refugees themselves can work together to confirm they have understood each other, and translation services can be of great assistance,” say the authors. The Translating and Interpreting Service (131 450) provides phone interpreters at no cost for doctors in private practice, and for community pharmacists.

The authors also explain that there are guidelines available for Australian GPs who work with refugees, to help with matters such as diagnosing unfamiliar conditions and managing psychological problems which are very common amongst this group.

“Clear communication by the health professional is key when working with refugees, whether they’re providing lifestyle and dietary advice or information about medicines. Patients themselves should ask questions if they are unclear about anything at all.”

To read the full article and others visit

To access translated health information and resources in ten different languages visit

Individuals with questions about their medicine can also call the NPS Medicines Line (1300 MEDICINE or 1300 633 424), Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm AEST.


Australian Prescriber is an independent peer-reviewed journal providing critical commentary on therapeutic topics for health professionals, particularly doctors in general practice. It is published every two months and distributed to health professionals free of charge, and is also available online at 

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