Researchers call for transnational perspective to improve migrants’ health

May 23, 2017

In a systematic review of the literature, researchers at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health consider whether and how studies of migrants’ health practices and behaviors to date have considered the migrants’ transnationalism as a factor in those practices and behaviors.

Laura Villa Torres

Dr. Clare Barrington

Dr. Clare Barrington

Laura Villa Torres, MSPH, health behavior doctoral student at the Gillings School, is first author, and Clare Barrington, PhD, associate professor of health behavior, is senior author of the article, published online April 27 in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

Villa Torres and colleagues identified 26 empirical studies in peer-reviewed journals that included a transnational perspective to study migrants’ health practices and behaviors. The studies described reasons migrants may travel back and forth between their native and new countries to receive health care – including cost, language and service quality. Studies also looked at the transnational practices of migrants who, due to their status, cannot travel across borders.

Even though migrants increasingly are referred to as “transnational,” – i.e., having constant, meaningful connections across borders – little research has addressed the influences of transnationalism. The authors report that some migrants are able to leverage their dual-country networks to expand health resources for themselves, but specific ways they do so depend upon the nature of the two communities.

This is particularly true, for instance, among those who can travel back and forth, when the two locations position migrants within two socio-economic strata, e.g., they are denied access to private health insurance in one place but can afford to pay for it in another.

“For migrants who can’t travel back to their countries,” Villa Torres said, “the transnational networks become crucial, as they provide migrants with information, remedies and medicines and facilitate access to health providers in their countries of origin via telecommunications. However, the extent of these practices and how they impact migrants’ health requires more exploration.”

To overcome the health inequalities experienced by migrant communities, the authors suggest, requires an analysis of the intersecting policies associated with health, immigration, labor and social welfare.

“Many transnational health practices are not addressing the fundamental causes of health inequities,” they write, “but rather circumventing the lack of transnational social protections. … To improve migrants’ health, it is critical to continue incorporating transnational perspectives into health research and the development of public health policies and programs for this population.”

Other co-authors of the literature review are Paul Fleming, PhD, Gillings School alumnus, now assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health; Rebecca Chavez, MPH, Gillings School alumna, now at Puentes de Salud Comunitaria in Oaxaca, Mexico; and Tonatiuh González, César Infante and Leonel González, researchers at the Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica (INSP), in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

“The collaboration with colleagues at INSP was jump-started with the support of the Explorations in Global Health grant from the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases,” Barrington said. “We hope to build on this to conduct collaborative transnational research in the near future.”

Endeavors, a publication that reports on research and creative activities at UNC-Chapel Hill, featured Villa-Torres as a ‘Woman in Science’ recently. Read more here.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu