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Health mentors open doors as refugees access healthcare 

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Erica, a health mentor with the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City, meets with a newly arrived refugee.
DNP student, Erica, has been a nurse for 4 years. A few years ago, she was introduced to the IRC. She feels it is important to help, “Healthcare is hard enough to access in this country, I can’t imagine trying to access it without speaking the language.” Photo: Maggie McCormick/IRC

Through a new partnership with the University of Utah Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, the health team at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City matched four recently arrived refugee families with a DNP student who works as a Health Mentor Volunteer. Health mentors, particularly those with experience in the healthcare field, become an invaluable, in-home resource for newly arrived families and individuals—eliminating the barrier of transportation through in-home visits, educating about the healthcare system in the U.S. and ultimately guiding families towards long-term health and self-sufficiency.

While health mentors do not diagnose or treat those they mentor, they assist with healthcare needs after an assessment conducted by Macy Westbrook, health outreach AmeriCorps VISTA on the IRC health team who also oversees the Health Mentor program. The assessment measures general health of the individual or family members, current health care access—ability to use public transportation, utilization of resources at the IRC, access to a pharmacy, etc.—and other health concerns. Health mentor volunteers then provide support in a variety of areas including: 

  • reading and understanding prescription medicines,
  • accessing the correct doctor or facility,
  • creating an emergency health care protocol,
  • and preventative care and healthy strategies.
Erica, a health mentor with the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City, uses her phone as a translator to communicate with the family she mentors. 
Erica uses her phone as a translator to communicate with the family she mentors.  Photo: Maggie McCormick/IRC

DNP students meet with the newly arrived refugee family or individual whom they mentor on a weekly basis for six months, guiding them through the process of accessing healthcare in their new community. Not only does the program promote access to healthcare and mitigate barriers, the Health Mentor program also “changes [people’s] mindset from survival mode to sustainability—that's what this program is about,” Macy explains. As a holistic approach to health, this program aims to increase awareness and participation in preventative care and guide people to long-term care of health, including nutrition, exercise, mental health awareness and overall well-being.   

Being a health mentor serves as an educational experience for DNP students, "the DNP program partnership with the IRC is a unique opportunity for future healthcare providers to develop some cultural competence and understand the challenges refugees undergo when entering the U.S. healthcare system, while helping them with basic healthy lifestyles,” Matt Horton, one of the student leads in the DNP program, explains. 

Together with other health services coordinated through the IRC in Salt Lake City, including transportation to medical appointments for the first 6-8 months after arrival, mental health, and maternal and child health services, newly arrived refugees are empowered to take control of their health, and ultimately, their livelihood.  

We appreciate the efforts of volunteer students from the University of Utah Doctor of Nursing Practice Program for assisting newly arrived refugees as they access healthcare and positively integrate into our community.

You can also help refugees in our community as a volunteer. Learn more by visiting Rescue.org/VolunteerSLC.