TORONTO - Many women from visible minority groups say they have difficulty getting a primary-care physician or specialists to address urgent health concerns or to monitor chronic medical conditions, a study has found.

The report shows one in three South Asian, West Asian and Arab women -- who together comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of Canada's population -- have trouble finding a doctor, getting an appointment or getting referred to specialists.

The study by researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences found this minority group and other immigrant women and men are at a significant disadvantage compared to Canadian-born individuals.

"Statistics Canada estimates by 2031, the country's visible minority population will double, with South Asians forming the largest visible minority group," said Dr. Arlene Bierman, principal investigator of the study.

"We need to be able to better serve the growing health-care needs of this community and reduce barriers to care to improve health outcomes," she said Monday.

The report, released Tuesday, is part of the larger POWER (Project for an Ontario Women's Health Evidence-Based Report) study. The researchers say it is the first to provide a comprehensive overview of women's health in relation to gender, income, education, ethnicity and geography.

"A key message of our study is that access is a lot more than wait times," said Bierman, noting that the Ontario findings would likely hold true for Canada as a whole. "The focus has been on wait times, but we also need to look at access within primary care."

The study found that 15 per cent of immigrants living in Canada less than five years did not have a primary-care doctor, compared to 7.3 per cent of Canadian-born adults.

Furthermore, almost one-third of women who did not often speak English or French at home reported more difficulties accessing care from a family doctor to monitor health problems. That compares to less than 20 per cent of women who speak English or French.

Christopher McIntosh, health services director at the Davenport Perth Neighbourhood Centre, said language can be a huge barrier for recent immigrants and minority groups when it comes to navigating the health-care system.

At the health centre in west-end Toronto, services include providing translators for patients, many of whom are recent immigrants who speak only Spanish or Portuguese.

"Typically when we work with those folks we find that they're facing a variety of different barriers that are impacting their health," said McIntosh, pointing to low income, unstable housing and mental health issues.

"So by the time they get to us or we bring them into the clinic, they've typically gone through quite a lot to even walk through the doors."

Women, in particular, may have fallen through the health-care cracks because many seek care for their children or adult relatives, said McIntosh. "They are typically placing themselves last."

Among the reports other findings:

  • Almost one-third of immigrant women in Canada for less than 10 years report having difficulties getting an appointment with a family doctor for a serious but non-emergency health problem, compared to 18 per cent of those born in Canada.
  • Nearly 40 per cent of East and Southeast Asian and 34 per cent of Aboriginal adults reported difficulties in getting specialist care, compared to 22 per cent of Caucasian Canadians.
  • More than half of South Asian and West Asian or Arab women reported not seeing a dentist in the previous 12 months compared to one-quarter of Caucasian women.

The study reveals there are yawning gaps in the ability of patients to get medical care in a system that is supposed to guarantee universal access, and Bierman said those gaps need to be closed.

"Providers need to work with their community and understand the different barriers that people are experiencing in the community and work together to try to overcome those."