Health-care workers aiding Syrians refugees in Ottawa are going beyond treating new arrivals for illnesses and conditions, and find themselves acting as guides to navigating the at-times confusing health-care system.

Jack McCarthy, the executive director of the Somerset West Community Health Centre, said since the refugees don't have access to a family doctor, front-line workers do more than administer health care.

"It's very disorienting for the Syrian refugees, trying to understand the Canadian health system, so we're trying to make it as easy as possible."

To help share those best practices, the Centretown Community Health Centre organized a gathering Thursday of more than 100 front-line health workers in Ottawa.

The gathering brought together six community health centres, as well as the Bruyère Family Medicine Centre, for seminars and question and answer sessions.

paula day refugee health ottawa

Nurse practitioner Paula Day says front line health workers have been treating refugees for a wide list of illnesses and conditions. (CBC)

"We've held the conversations with all the different players. 'What are you doing, and what are you doing, and how can we insure that we're all doing it well together?'"

More than 1,000 refugees arrived so far

The workers have been treating the 1,024 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Ottawa as of Feb. 11.

In many cases, treatment has been delivered through impromptu triage units setup in hotels where many of the refugees are being temporarily housed.

Refugees can be covered for up to one year under the Interim Federal Health Program, but communicating what is covered and what isn't often falls to the nurses and health-care workers meeting with the new arrivals, says nurse practitioner Paula Day.

Day says front-line health workers have been treating refugees for a wide list of illnesses and conditions, including colds, flu-like symptoms, ear aches and fevers. In some cases patients have run out of their prescription medication.

Working with the refugees is very gratifying, says Day.

"It feels really great to be part of this. There's been a real community effort. There's a good charge. It's history in the making. People are happy to help out and share their expertise," she said.


  • An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the refugee health event was organized by the Somerset West Community Health Centre. The organizer was actually the Centretown Community Health Centre.
    Feb 11, 2016 5:32 PM ET