Exploring refugees’ health care access in times of COVID-19: a quantitative study in the Lisbon region, Portugal

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Background: To address the health needs of refugees, health services must be culturally competent and facilitate this population’s access to health care, especially in a context prone to the amplification of social inequities, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, few quantitative studies exist in the European Union, and to the extent of our knowledge, there are no published quantitative studies exploring refugees’ access to health care during the pandemic in Portugal. The objective of this study is to describe the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of refugees living in Lisbon and to explore their healthcare access patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional, descriptive, and quantitative study from May to November 2022. Using Levesque’ s theory on health care access, we designed and applied a 38-item questionnaire through face-to-face interviews with refugees living in Lisbon for at least 12 months, and used descriptive statistics to characterize sociodemographic and healthcare access profiles during the pandemic. Results: The mean age of the 36 recruited refugees was 35 years (SD = 10.24), the majority were male (56%), married (72%), had at least a secondary education (69%), were unemployed (77.8%), and had a median length of stay in Portugal of 17 months (IQR = 45). All were registered in a primary care center, and 94% used healthcare services during the pandemic. The majority never tested positive for the coronavirus (58%) and one out of the positive was admitted to hospital due to severe COVID-19. A total of 97% received COVID-19 vaccination, of which 69% had an incomplete schedule. A quarter of the participants did not have access to information about COVID-19 in a language they understood, and although 97% needed health care during the pandemic, more than half (63%) did not seek it because of structural and cultural barriers. Half of the respondents had difficulty getting medical advice by phone or email, and 39.4% could not afford a medical examination or treatment. Only 18.2% sought counseling services. A total of 58.8% of the participants felt like healthcare professionals did not always show respect towards their culture, and 64.7% reported that healthcare professionals did not always discuss treatment options with them. Conclusion: This study’s findings highlight the need to endow inclusive communication, cultural competency, and patient involvement in health care, alongside improving the socioeconomic condition of refugees. Identified population characteristics and barriers to health care access by refugees in this study may inform future research on the health care needs of refugees in Portugal and ultimately assist in the devising of strategies to reduce inequalities in health care access.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1337299
JournalFrontiers in public health
Publication statusPublished - 2024


  • COVID-19
  • health care access
  • migrants
  • Portugal
  • refugees


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