The NHS is being urged both to improve access to healthcare for refugees and to integrate more refugee doctors into the service. Barbara Millar reports

The first ever national Refugee Week, intended 'to celebrate and educate about the refugee experience', takes place this week.

Among more than 100 events taking place nationwide, the Health Education Authority will be launching its expert working group report on refugees at a seminar hosted by the King's Fund.

The King's Fund also hopes to use the week to highlight its own advocacy work with London refugee communities.

Elsewhere, the British Medical Association has joined forces with the Jewish Council for Racial Equality to urge the government to integrate refugee doctors into the NHS.

The JCRE helped Jewish refugee doctors who fled Nazi persecution and came to Britain in the 1930s.

'It is acknowledged that these doctors made an enormous contribution to Britain's healthcare,' says Vivienne Nathanson, head of policy and research at the BMA.

'Now several hundred newly arrived doctors from many parts of the world fear losing their medical skills - skills that the NHS could use. It is vital they are given the chance to exercise them.'

Most refugee doctors must sit the Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board examination before they can be registered with the General Medical Council.

'It is very difficult for any overseas doctor to pass this examination without specific knowledge of the UK medical system, gained through observation and study,' says Dr Nathanson.

'This may involve refugee doctors in a great deal of preparation and expense, for which current support is inadequate.'

Jane Coker, who chaired the HEA's expert working group on refugees, says around 30 'movers and shakers' have been invited to the report's launch in a bid to raise the problems refugees face in getting access to health services and health promotion services.

'We want to make trust chief executives, in particular, aware of these problems and look at how they might be tackled,' Ms Coker explains.

The report recommends that refugees are given 'carry-with' medical records, as they often move around, causing difficulties for GPs who do not know what drugs they may have been given.

It also suggests that all refugees should be given a 'welcome pack' on arrival in the UK, explaining how to get access to health services. And it says work should be carried out with GPs to explain refugees' entitlement to healthcare, and a proper interpretation service should be set up.

'There are lots of examples of good work across the country but a lack of co-ordination means that many projects continue to re-invent the wheel. Also lots of projects are supported by short-term funding and fold when the money dries up.'

Susan Elizabeth, grants officer at the King's Fund, which provides more than£350,000 in grants to support 10 refugee projects in London, agrees that this is 'a huge dilemma'.

The problem that most of the projects face is that they are not mainstreamed, says Ms Elizabeth.

'We are trying to open up channels of communication between the refugee projects and local health authorities and to build relationships.

With primary care groups beginning to be established in London, it is vital that the voices of asylum seekers are heard more clearly in the mainstream of the NHS,' she adds.