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Medical University of Vienna researches better medical care for migrants in EU project

(Vienna, 4th August 2011) Since April 2011, the Medical University of Vienna has been involved in the EU project entitled “RESTORE”, which focuses on the medical care of migrants in primary care settings. The aim is to be able to deliver a proposal by 31st March 2015 that will improve the situation not only for patients, but also for general practitioners and the bearers of medical care costs.

The head of the project in Austria is general practitioner Wolfgang Spiegel from the University Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. “When it comes to looking after migrants, linguistic and cultural barriers are very well-known issues. In order to find out where patients are experiencing problems, we are also looking at aspects that relate to the perception of illness", he explains, outlining one of the problem areas. Indeed, not only will the researchers be looking at the complaints or symptoms themselves, but also the fears, hopes or social and familial consequences of "being ill". Spiegel: “While there are linguistic and cultural barriers, a mutually trusting doctor/patient relationship is difficult to establish. This is particularly true for psychosocial problems and psychiatric disorders.”

“Reducing the potential for misunderstandings”
Many patients bring relatives with them to an appointment who act as an interpreter, as Spiegel knows from his own experience as a general practitioner in Vienna’s Ottakring district. However, the use of non-professional interpreters can lead to a variety of misunderstandings: “Often, the doctor’s message or question is wrongly translated or misunderstood by the relative who is interpreting.” It is often then possible that the doctor may believe he or she has reached an agreement with the patient - for example for a certain type of treatment or an inpatient admission - but the patient actually believes the opposite. “We want to use the methodology of participatory learning and acting in this project to come up with alternatives and solutions. It may be necessary, for example, to briefly inform non-professional interpreters of the interpreting procedure or to go through a defined checklist with them in advance. We will also be looking at various models for using professional medical interpreters, such as telephone-based interpreting services.”

Focus on mental health
The clinical focus of the Austrian part of this European research project will be mental health. “Migration is often a precursor to mental illness and trauma.” Spiegel: “In general practice, we encounter migrants on a daily basis who have come to us with mental problems. It certainly isn’t easy, finding the ones who need psychiatric treatment and referring the patients to specialist psychiatric services.” The first specific results from the project are expected in the spring of 2012.

At the moment, the project is looking at the current situation as regards recommendations and research results and talking with groups of stakeholders (doctors, migrants, organisational representatives) about their ideas and wishes.

RESTORE is a research project funded by the European Commission. Its aim is to optimise basic medical and psychosocial care for migrants in Europe. Using innovative research methods such as participatory learning and acting and normalisation process theory, the researchers aim to find out how cultural and linguistic barriers can be overcome in the contact between migrants and general practitioners and/or medical staff. At the same time, the project will examine how the resources available can be integrated efficiently into healthcare systems across Europe. Universities from Austria, Greece, England, Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands are involved in the project.