Calls to keep specialist GP in Wollongong for female refugees

Specialised service: TeamMed director Dr Munther Zureigat is calling on the Department of Health to allow Arabic-speaking Dr Noha Mahanna to remain at the Wollongong practice. Picture: Robert Peet
Specialised service: TeamMed director Dr Munther Zureigat is calling on the Department of Health to allow Arabic-speaking Dr Noha Mahanna to remain at the Wollongong practice. Picture: Robert Peet

Rajaa Odda is one of hundreds of refugee women devastated that Wollongong’s only Arabic-speaking female GP specialising in refugee health is being forced to relocate.

Mrs Odda – who fled war-torn Syria several years ago – has been a patient of Dr Noha Mahanna for over two years and said she will not know who else to turn to. 

The Department of Health has extended overseas-trained Dr Mahanna’s participation in the Special Approved Placements Program until February; but then she must transfer to the Rural Locum Relief program.

Practically that means leaving the 300 patients she sees at Wollongong’s TeamMed Medical and Dental practice, and moving to a country area.

Via an interpreter Mrs Odda told the Mercury: ‘’From a cultural point of view we do not feel comfortable seeing a male doctor, especially when it comes to women’s health and mental health issues.

‘’Dr Mahanna is easy to talk to and she has an understanding of where we come from.’’

Another patient, Fauzia Odeh, added: ‘’I have seen another female doctor using an interpreter, but I didn’t feel they delivered the message right. It’s much better to speak to someone face to face, in your own language.’’

TeamMed director Dr Munther Zureigat said there was no replacement for Dr Mahanna.

‘’She is the only female Arabic-speaking doctor in the region specialising in refugee health,’’ he said. ‘’There are cultural barriers to female refugees to see male doctors, and language barriers with other female doctors.

‘’It’s hard to use translators, especially when conveying mental health issues – and almost 100 per cent of our these patients have depression, anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder.’’

Dr Mahanna, who came to Australia from Egypt eight years ago, said she was concerned about her patients.

‘’I was off sick recently and the majority of my patients delayed their visit until I came back, which made me feel very guilty,’’ she said.

‘’They didn’t want to talk to another doctor via an interpreter as it’s very hard to talk about your feelings. I’m worried that when I go, they will not talk about those things and they will escalate.’’

The GP has the support of Illawarra Multicultural Services CEO Raquel Aldunate: ‘’Dr Mahanna has built trust and rapport with many female IMS clients and I am gravely concerned that if she is to be transferred to a new location, our female clients will disengage from health services completely’’.

Dr Zureigat called on the Department of Health to reconsider, and allow Dr Mahanna to stay at the Wollongong Central practice.

A department spokesperson said due to privacy laws, they were unable to comment on an individual doctor’s application for a placement on the Special Approved Placements Program.

‘’However, it must be understood that the SAPP is designed to only be an interim solution while doctors either sit their exams or get onto a more structured training program while working towards becoming a specialist GP,’’ the spokesperson said.

‘’It is reserved for those with exceptional personal circumstances that prevent them from participating in another program and placements on the SAPP are not granted on the basis of family circumstances, the employment needs of medical practices or on the cultural and linguistic background of the applicant or their patients.’’