A projected 600 to 700 refugees and those seeking asylum are expected to arrive in Rochester during 2010, rather than the 200 to 400 that were arriving annually just a few years ago, according to Catholic Family Center information that was distributed during a conference last month on refugee health care.
Some local doctors are making plans to better cope with the influx of future refugees by beginning a new language-interpretation system that may offer greater privacy and accuracy when refugees and other immigrants speak to their doctors. That system was demonstrated Dec. 11 at Rochester General Hospital during the "Refugee Healthcare Challenges and Solutions" conference.
In the past, some Rochester-area doctors communicated with non-English-speaking refugees through a translator in the exam room with the refugee and doctor. This interpreter was either a trained or untrained hospital staff or community member. For times when a face-to-face interpreter was unavailable, doctors could use a telephone-based interpretation system.
However, face-to-face translations lacked privacy, and both face-to-face and telephone translations have been linked to a high incidence of medical errors, according to Dr. Francesca Gany, director for the Center for Immigrant Health at Bellevue Hospital Center and New York University.
Under the new system that Rochester General Hospital and Catholic Family Center will be implementing locally in January, CFC translators would be available remotely, and the translations of a conversation would be broadcast instantly over headsets that doctors and patients wear as they speak one on one. This style of interpretation is modeled on an interpretation system used at the United Nations, Gany said.
In trials in New York City, the remote system was linked with fewer medical errors when compared with other forms of interpretation. The system also won rave reviews from patients whose privacy was maintained, according to Gany, who helped pioneer the project at NYU and who has an ownership stake in a company that sells the technology.
"The patients voted with their feet and with their arms," she said. "They all came out of the exam room and quite literally hugged us."
The conference also featured an overview of the services offered by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement from Marta Brenden, coordinator of refugee health programs for that office. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees refugees who are brought to the U.S. to escape persecution, and immigrant asylum seekers who come to the U.S. of their own accord to escape similar persecution. The office also provides services for Cuban, Haitian and Vietnamese immigrants, human-trafficking victims, unaccompanied alien children and survivors of torture.
Since 1980, the U.S. has accepted nearly 2.5 million refugees and asylum seekers — more per year than the entire world combined, Brenden said.
"Refugee resettlement is a humanitarian program, but it is also based on our diplomatic agenda," she said.
She noted that the president and the U.S. Congress make decisions on how many legal immigrants are accepted by the United States each year. In 2008, the number of refugees admitted to the United States was capped at 80,000 a year. This past year, that ceiling was nearly reached, said James Sutton, a physician’s assistant and director of community medicine for Rochester General Hospital.
"Over the last few years, (the federal government has) gotten better at letting people in," he said.
From Jan. 1, 2007, to Oct. 30, 2009, 1,701 refugees from a variety of countries arrived in the Rochester area, according to Catholic Family Center, which functions as the only refugee resettlement agency in the Rochester area and the local sponsor of refugees. The majority were from Burma (590), Bhutan (394), Somalia (165), Cuba (132) and Iraq (110).
"We think our growth is reflective of growth at the national level," noted Jim Morris, associate director of refugee services for Catholic Family Center. He noted that the agency provides interpreters in 35 different languages to schools, municipalities and other entities.
Locally, the Rochester area felt a strain on its systems that were in place to help absorb refugees, Sutton noted. For instance, health care for resettled refugees had been provided by Westside Health Services, but that office reached its capacity and was unable to take new refugee patients, he said. Rochester General Hospital subsequently agreed to provide health care for new arrivals, he said.
Brenden noted that the federal government is not planning to expand any of its programs to aid arriving refugees, due to the sluggish economy.
"It isn’t a time where you start looking for money for more services," she said.
Instead, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement is trying to build partnerships with other federal funding agencies to make sure refugees qualify for federal services. For instance, refugees may qualify to receive food stamps.
"We want to make sure that you all know about these programs and encourage refugees to make use of them," Brenden said.