Australian Health Review Australian Health Review Society
Journal of the Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association

A two-way street: reciprocal teaching and learning in refugee health

Timothy James Martin A B , Coen Butters A C and Linny Phuong A B D
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A The Water Well Project, PO Box 6218, Vermont South, Vic. 3133, Australia. Email:;

B Royal Children’s Hospital, 50 Flemington Road, Parkville, Vic. 3052, Australia.

C Monash Children’s Hospital, Locked Bag 29, Clayton South, Vic. 3169, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email:

Australian Health Review 42(1) 1-4
Submitted: 8 March 2017  Accepted: 8 July 2017   Published: 28 September 2017


The Water Well Project is a health promotion charity that aims to improve the health literacy of individuals of refugee, asylum seeker and migrant backgrounds. Health literacy is an important predictor of health status, but many Australians cannot demonstrate functional health literacy, and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds are at higher risk of poor health literacy. The primary participants of The Water Well Project’s health education sessions are individuals of refugee, asylum seeker and migrant background, who are at risk of increased morbidity and mortality due to a range of factors. Secondary participants are volunteer healthcare professionals who facilitate these sessions. Because the Water Well Project is a community-centric organisation, the content and delivery of education sessions is shaped by the health literacy needs of the participants. During each session, The Water Well Project aims for a ratio of two volunteer healthcare professionals to every 5–15 participants. Sessions are interactive, with the use of visual aids, and incorporate the services of a professional interpreter when required. Since 2011, over 300 education sessions have been delivered to more than 3000 participants with anticipated flow-on effects to family and friends. The sessions provide a unique opportunity for participants and volunteer healthcare professionals to simultaneously acquire valuable health literacy skills. For participants, this fosters an improved awareness of and trust in the healthcare system; for volunteer healthcare professionals, this affords the opportunity to contribute to the health of vulnerable populations while developing skills in working effectively with interpreters and CALD communities.

What is known about this topic? Individuals of CALD backgrounds, including refugees and asylum seekers, are at risk of poor health literacy. Reasons include burden of illness, effects of transition including exposure to psychological and physical trauma, and exposure to new risk factors in country of settlement.

What does this paper add? The Water Well Project is a not-for-project, health literacy organisation that provides health education sessions to individuals of refugee, asylum seeker and migrant background. Interactive sessions are provided by volunteer healthcare professionals at the request of established community groups. Evaluation data has demonstrated positive outcomes for session participants, volunteers and referral community organisations.

What are the implications for practitioners? Improved health literacy improves the ability of individuals to engage with the health system and improve their own health. Healthcare volunteers gained valuable skills working with CALD communities and interpreters.


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