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Strengthening the primary care workforce to deliver high-quality care for non-communicable diseases in refugee settings: lessons learnt from a UNHCR partnership

Philippa Harris, Ros Kirkland, Saimon Masanja, Peter Le Feuvre, Sarah Montgomery, Éimhín Ansbro, Michael Woodman, Matthew Harris


Non-communicable disease (NCD) prevention and care in humanitarian contexts has been a long-neglected issue. Healthcare systems in humanitarian settings have focused heavily on communicable diseases and immediate life-saving health needs. NCDs are a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in refugee settings, however, in many situations NCD care is not well integrated into primary healthcare services. Increased risk of poorer outcomes from COVID-19 for people living with NCDs has heightened the urgency of responding to NCDs and shone a spotlight on their relative neglect in these settings. Partnering with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) since 2014, Primary Care International has provided clinical guidance and Training of Trainer (ToT) courses on NCDs to 649 health professionals working in primary care in refugee settings in 13 countries. Approximately 2300 healthcare workers (HCW) have been reached through cascade trainings over the last 6 years. Our experience has shown that, despite fragile health services, high staff turnover and competing clinical priorities, it is possible to improve NCD knowledge, skills and practice. ToT programmes are a feasible and practical format to deliver NCD training to mixed groups of HCW (doctors, nurses, technical officers, pharmacy technicians and community health workers). Clinical guidance must be adapted to local settings while co-creating an enabling environment for health workers is essential to deliver accessible, high-quality continuity of care for NCDs. On-going support for non-clinical systems change is equally critical for sustained impact. A shared responsibility for cascade training—and commitment from local health partners—is necessary to raise NCD awareness, influence local and national policy and to meet the UNHCR’s objective of facilitating access to integrated prevention and control of NCDs.

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