Health For Members

How special Danish clinics help foreigners 'failed' by public health system

AFP - [email protected]
How special Danish clinics help foreigners 'failed' by public health system
Morten Sodemann (R), Chief Physician at The Migrant Health Clinic, speaks with a patient at the clinic in Odense, Denmark on December 1st 2023. Photo: Camille BAS-WOHLERT / AFP

Several clinics in Denmark are specialising in treating non-Western patients who often experience discrimination in the country's public healthcare system, known for its efficiency but accused of failing these patients.


"The fate of a patient originally from East Africa made me understand that we can and must do better," said Morten Sodemann, who heads the oldest of
three healthcare centres solely treating immigrants in the Scandinavian country of 5.9 million people.

Married to a Danish farmer whom she met while he was on safari in Tanzania, the young woman moved to western Denmark where she arrived exhausted.

A local doctor diagnosed her as suffering from "culture shock", Sodemann recalled.

"Her condition deteriorated and she was hospitalised the weekend I was on duty. Three weeks later she died. She was HIV positive and had tuberculosis."

Her case is "proof that the concept of 'culture shock' can be fatal," added Sodemann.

Medical discrimination, which in Denmark sometimes goes by terms that could be translated into English as "ethnic pain" or "cultural symptoms", can lead to patients not getting the care they need.  "When faced with people who don't look like you and who express their symptoms differently than you're used to, the doctor decides there's nothing wrong," Sodemann said.


Attitudes like this are the result of latent xenophobia, according to the head of Refugees Welcome, Michala Bendixen.

She said it was impossible to quantify how frequently it occurs.

But a recent report by the Danish Institute for Human Rights showed that 84 percent of ethnic minorities had experienced some type of discrimination or prejudice based on their appearance.

'Bad experience'

Ethnographer Nina Halberg said that while many foreign-born patients experience discrimination, most are reluctant to label it as such and prefer to put it down to a "bad experience".

"Those who are born outside Denmark don't want to ask for anything, because the Danish healthcare system is good compared to the one they've left behind," she explained.

She said the system was not designed to cater to different cultures, which automatically leads to inequalities.

The system "puts the emphasis on individual responsibility", saying "you're responsible for your own health, you have to participate in the process."

To remedy this, Sodemann's clinic at the Odense University Hospital offers longer consultations, reserved for patients whose medical issues have not been solved in the public system.


The clinic has treated around 250 patients per year since it opened more than a decade ago.

To get an appointment, "it's not enough to have a foreign-sounding name, you have to have a medical problem that nobody has managed to resolve."

That's the case for Ali Hod Roj, originally from Lebanon, who was sent to one specialist after another after a workplace accident.

At Sodemann's clinic, Roj -- who is in his 50s and never attended school -- said he was met by nurses and doctors who listened to him, and he is now scheduled to have a back operation soon.

"Three years, lots of different doctors who couldn't help me. Here, they listen to me and we're starting to find solutions."


One-hour appointments

"At the hospital or the general practitioner, they have 10 minutes to talk about just one problem. That's often very hard for our patients because they usually have physical, psychological and social problems," explained nurse Ngoc Nguyen.

She has worked for more than 10 years at Sodemann's clinic, where each new patient is booked for an hour-long appointment.

"They often tell us: 'Nobody has ever asked me that'," she smiled.

Sodemann said he has seen a slight improvement in mentality in the Danish healthcare system over the years.

Danske Regioner, which oversees Denmark's healthcare system, meanwhile claims the problem is primarily a language one.

"People from abroad often have challenges with the Danish language, and it is therefore important to ensure interpretation when attending health care services," the organisation told AFP in a written statement.

It acknowledged however that "there is still more work to be done to ensure equal access and treatment opportunities for people with minority backgrounds."


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