How Apps Can Help Migrants Achieve Better Health Outcomes

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Key Takeaways

  • A study conducted by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University finds that mobile applications aided by artificial intelligence may help migrants better address their physical and mental health. 
  • Immigrants face many barriers to quality health care and are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
  • Experts say providers should keep these barriers and health risks in mind when treating patients who are migrants.

In countries across the globe, some immigrants are twice as likely to contract COVID-19 compared to those born in the country. Throughout the pandemic, immigrants have been disproportionately impacted due to poor housing conditions, jobs that make physical distancing difficult, and lack of access to affordable health care. 

While experts say multiple measures need to be taken to help immigrant communities receive adequate health care, a study conducted by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University indicates that mobile applications aided by artificial intelligence (AI) may help migrants better address their physical and mental health. 

For the study, researchers surveyed migrants in Greece coming from Africa and Asia over a 10-month period between 2018 and 2019 to see how applications driven by AI could help them integrate into the new culture and achieve better mental and physical health outcomes. Researchers found that mobile apps that used AI—in the form of language assistants, for example—improved health outcomes for migrants by 5.3%, versus 1% improvement for non-AI mobile app users.

The study will be published in the April 2021 edition of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and was published online in December.

Incorporating AI into health apps "might improve the quality and accuracy of health services and create a better match between immigrants’ needs and the services provided, leading to greater valuable informational capabilities and outcomes,” the study’s author Nick Drydakis, PhD, director of the Centre for Pluralist Economics at Anglia Ruskin University in England, tells Verywell. 

What This Means For You

If you're struggling to access health care, mobile health apps may be a helpful tool and a first step to seeking treatment. If you're a recent migrant and need assistance in navigating the health system in your area, the web app Services Advisor helps point you to humanitarian services like food, shelter, and medicine. Another web app, Shifra provides sexual and reproductive health information in different languages.

The Study 

Apps that include customized search results, health symptom trackers, and virtual assistance for health conditions may bring “advantages compared to those applications which are not aided by AI assistants,” Drydakis says.

One clear benefit to apps aided by AI is their ability to help migrants, who may not have proficiency in their new country’s main language, access more information when assessing their health concerns. AI language assistants can help migrants understand symptoms or better understand what their doctor told them. The apps could also help migrants who suspect they have a condition that may be stigmatized in their culture. 

“Individuals who do not have access to health care and perceive themselves as having a stigmatizing condition are more likely to use m-Health applications for self-diagnosis,” Drydakis says. “M-Mental health applications reach population groups who might otherwise not have access to mental health or other clinical care.”

M-Integration and m-Health are terms that refer to mobile integration, which is when different apps and devices are connected to achieve a seamless data exchange in your daily life. In this case, it involves connecting health services directly to your phone.

These mobile applications are not supposed to replace treatment, but instead help facilitate care, which Drydakis says their research supports. “Healthcare data which are analyzed by using AI techniques...have been found to achieve better patient education, prevention and checkup, diagnosis, medical predictive modeling, decision support, and treatment outcomes,” he says. 

Lack of Phones Presents Barrier To Access  

While this research found that AI apps can help migrants, many do not have access to or use these apps in the first place. The study found that 32% of migrants in this study did not have a mobile phone, and 42% of migrants who did have phones did not use these applications. Women were also 27% less likely to own a mobile phone than men.

“Mobile phones and m-Integration applications seem to guarantee key human rights such as the right of information, the right to the family life, the right to work and education, the right to cultural identity maintenance, and the right to mental health,” Drydakis says. “The World Health Organization recommended the use of digital health in improving health services, particularly for vulnerable populations.” 

Unique Health Risks of Migrants 

While mobile applications can be helpful with integration into a new country, Dabney P. Evans, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Humanitarian Emergencies and assistant professor of global health in Emory University Rollins School of Public Health in Georgia, tells Verywell that providers should be very cautious in how they treat migrants, particularly if they are refugees or asylum seekers.

“Asylum seekers and refugees, in particular, frequently experience torture or other forms of persecution by their home government,” Evans says. She stresses that healthcare providers should keep this in mind when treating patients because the consequent health effects can include "physical injury, but they can also include mental effects which are long-lasting things like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.”

When it comes to helping migrants adjust to a new country, Evans said that it is important to not let them receive substandard care. “We want to think about providing ethical high-quality standards of care, just as we would to any other population, and that may be more challenging,” Evans says. She cites lack of access to health care and issues with trust in the U.S. as potential barriers for migrants. Many migrants may be hesitant to go to the hospital in-person due to concerns about being detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she adds.

Evans pointed to apps used by Planned Parenthood Federation to help migrants traveling to the U.S. “They were using some mobile apps to be able to provide emergency contraception and other sexual reproductive health services along the routes that people were taking as they were traveling from Central America up through Mexico,” Evans says. “That was more of a health service provision for populations on the move” until they were able to access doctors. 

Migrant Health During COVID-19 in the U.S. 

In addition to AI apps, there are other steps the U.S. can take to improve access to health care during the COVID-19 pandemic for immigrant populations. An article published in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases recommended that the following policy changes be introduced:

  1. Expand Medicaid in all states to cover more low-income adults
  2. Fund SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) testing and COVID-19 treatment for all uninsured individuals, regardless of immigration status
  3. Get rid of immigration status requirements for children when assessing their eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  4. Include immigrants who have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and their families in economic relief packages

Drydakis also believes that AI health apps can play an important role during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Mobile applications aided by AI enable users to access customized information and services 24/7,” Drydakis says. “Current studies have found that M-health technologies are a viable option in monitoring COVID-19 patients at home, and to predict who will need medical intervention.”

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. What is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on immigrants and their children?

  2. Drydakis, N. Mobile applications aiming to facilitate immigrants’ societal integration and overall level of integration, health and mental health. Does artificial intelligence enhance outcomes?. Computers in Human Behavior. 2021;117:106661. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2020.106661

  3. Mitel. What is mobile integration?

  4. Clark, E., Fredricks, K., Woc-Colburn, L., Bottazzi, M. and Weatherhead, J., 2020. Disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on immigrant communities in the United States. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. 2020;14(7):e0008484. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0008484

By Julia Métraux
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer specializing in disability.