Tower Hamlets Somali community ‘let down’ by NHS

Muna Osman says she had to wait three years after seeing a GP before she was told she had kidney failure.

Muna Osman says she had to wait three years after seeing a GP before she was told she had kidney failure. Photo: Sophie Eastaugh

A group of Somali women living in Tower Hamlets feel so “let down” by the NHS that they have formed a local health network to support their community in accessing better health and social care.

The Somali Women’s Health Network was formed two months ago by local charity Women’s Health and Family Services (WHFS) in response to reports from Somalis of being ignored, disrespected and patronised in GP waiting rooms.

Somali interpreter Fausia Duale said she was thrown out of a GP’s surgery for standing up for a patient who was told she had mental health issues after complaining of a simple headache. Muna Osman, who lives in Poplar, said she had to wait three years after seeing a GP to find out she had kidney failure.

Many women have reported that language barriers are the issue, while others say there is underlying racial prejudice. Somali-British mother of two Ayaan Gulaid, a trustee of the charity, said: “There are definitely racial prejudices. People see everything about Somali immigration and FGM in the media and think that’s all we are. But we’re real people, many of us were born here and we need to be listened to.”

Public funding for interpreters for healthcare appointments has been dramatically slashed in the last two years, as has funding for English classes. Two years ago, WHFS lost all of its public health grant for interpretation and advocacy services, which comprised half of its work and totalled £100,000.

As a result, older Somalis who don’t speak English well often have to take their children to GP appointments, which in sensitive situations, can result in information being missed out or changed. Ms Gulaid added: “Our community doesn’t have a voice. It’s like there’s a gag over our face.”

The Somali community makes up the second largest ethnic minority in Tower Hamlets, estimated at roughly 2000 people by WHFS. However, there is no specific category for Somalis on the national census or public health forms, which the charity says makes it very difficult to provide adequate health services.

The Somali Women’s Health Network is a group of eight core members split in each of the borough’s NHS areas; Poplar, Bow, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. Two members in each area hold regular meetings with the local Somali community to help and advise those who are “falling through the net”.

The group’s campaign, ‘Health with Dignity’ is backed by Councillor Amina Ali, one of only two Somali councillors in the whole of the UK. It will present its findings to Tower Hamlets GPs at a conference in January.

Listen to Chief Executive of Women’s Health and Family Services Sharon Hanooman talk about why the Somali community feels let down: 

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