Dispensing dignity: Townsville’s trans health advocate

By Our Reporter
Swapna Chaudhary // Pic supplied

India-born Swapna Chaudhary is a pharmacist working at James Cook University, known for her dedication to improving healthcare for transgender and gender-diverse (TGD) communities. She firmly believes in the power of educating pharmacists to create inclusive environments, use respectful language, and provide training on gender-affirming treatments to enhance the health of TGD individuals.

Chaudhary’s passion for transgender health emerged during her internship in Townsville when she noticed that many transgender patients sought assistance at her pharmacy. Recognising an opportunity to enhance their healthcare, she began offering services such as medication reviews, counselling on medicines and hormonal treatments, addressing side effects, and promoting preventive health. Her pharmacy had already established itself as a safe and supportive space for these patients, making it an ideal starting point for her research.

In recognition of her work, Chaudhary has received two awards this year: the PSA Queensland Early Career Pharmacist of the Year and the national LGBTQ Inclusion Innovation Award at the 2023 Pride in Health + Wellbeing Awards.

As a current PhD candidate at James Cook University, her research centres on the role of pharmacists in trans and gender-diverse healthcare. She has collected data to identify knowledge gaps among pharmacists and collaborated closely with the trans and gender-diverse community to design training programs tailored to their needs. Chaudhary’s training program has been implemented for pharmacists across Australia, significantly impacting the field.

In conversation with Swapna Chaudhary. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Swapna Chaudhary // Pic supplied

How have the awards impacted your career?

I’m deeply honoured to receive both the LGBTQ Inclusion Innovation Award at the 2023 Pride in Health + Wellbeing Awards and the PSA Queensland Early Career Pharmacist of the Year at the PSA Queensland Excellence Awards 2023. These awards have significantly impacted my career as a healthcare professional and researcher.

The LGBTQ Inclusion Innovation Award acknowledges my innovative approach to promoting LGBTQ inclusion in healthcare. Working as a pharmacist in Townsville, I identified a significant knowledge gap in serving the needs of trans and gender-diverse individuals. To address this, I pursued a PhD at James Cook University, focusing on the role of pharmacists in trans and gender-diverse healthcare. This research has enabled me to collaborate with various healthcare professionals and organisations dedicated to improving transgender health.

These awards highlight my commitment to closing this gap and ensuring that transgender and gender-diverse individuals receive the care they deserve, emphasising the importance of innovation in delivering person-centred care.

My research journey has allowed me to network with professionals from various fields, expanding my knowledge and keeping me updated on the latest advancements in transgender care. Moreover, it has enabled me to develop and deliver a comprehensive training module in transgender healthcare for pharmacists and pharmacy students. This module is now integrated into the pharmacy curriculum at James Cook University, ensuring that future pharmacists are better prepared to provide inclusive and culturally respectful care to transgender and gender-diverse communities. My career has been positively influenced by these opportunities to collaborate, learn, and contribute to improving the health outcomes and experiences of transgender and gender-diverse individuals.

What inspired you to become a pharmacist, and how did you end up specialising in transgender health?

I was drawn to pharmacy by its versatility, offering roles in various settings such as community pharmacy, hospital pharmacy, and pharmaceutical research. Over the years, I’ve worked in these diverse roles, interacting directly with patients, enhancing safety through services like Home Medicines Review, and contributing to healthcare education.

Additionally, my journey has extended into academia, allowing me to present research, publish articles, and shape pharmacy practice standards. What continually inspires me is knowing that each of these roles contributes to better patient care. Pharmacy’s diversity enables me to adapt, innovate, and make a meaningful impact on healthcare, driving my dedication to providing better care for my patients every day.

Can you share some of the key challenges and disparities you’ve encountered in transgender health, both in Australia and globally?

Addressing disparities in transgender health, both in Australia and globally, is crucial for equitable healthcare access and outcomes. Transgender individuals often face obstacles like stigmatisation and marginalisation, leading to discrimination in healthcare. Lack of awareness about their specific healthcare needs results in inadequate care.

Culturally sensitive communication, such as using preferred names and pronouns, is often overlooked, worsening discomfort and mistrust among transgender individuals when seeking healthcare. Alarmingly, mental health disparities, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies, are common in this community compared to the general population. Additionally, challenges in finding supportive environments at home, in education, at work, and in healthcare settings, along with socioeconomic issues like homelessness and unemployment, compound the disparities in transgender health. Addressing these issues is essential to ensure comprehensive and compassionate care for transgender individuals.

How do cultural differences between India and Australia influence your approach to transgender healthcare, and what strategies have you developed to address these differences?

Growing up in India, I was immersed in an environment rich with diversity, and from a young age, I was taught the importance of respecting every individual and treating them nonjudgmentally, regardless of their background or identity. This upbringing instilled in me a strong commitment to these values.

Upon moving to Australia, I found a multicultural society that shares these principles of respect and inclusivity. The cultural diversity here did not change my fundamental belief in treating everyone respectfully and nonjudgmentally, whether they come from various countries, identify with different genders, or express various sexualities. In my view, everyone, regardless of their cultural or personal background, deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. This approach forms the foundation of my work in transgender healthcare, ensuring that I provide compassionate and culturally sensitive care to individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Swapna Chaudhary // Pic supplied
What are some of the most important services or programs you’ve been involved in to improve transgender health outcomes in Australia?

I have actively contributed to enhancing transgender health outcomes in Australia through various initiatives. Notably, I’ve authored educational articles in professional journals aimed at raising awareness and improving pharmacist competence in caring for transgender and gender-diverse individuals. I’ve also conducted educational sessions for healthcare professionals, including doctors and pharmacists, in partnership with organisations like Murtupuni—Centre for Rural and Remote Health and Western Queensland Primary Health Network. Furthermore, I’ve delivered educational webinars in collaboration with organisations like NSW Rural Doctor’s Network, Rural Pharmacy Support Network, Rural Health Pro, and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA).

One of my most significant contributions has been the development and delivery of an online module tailored for Australian pharmacists and pharmacy students. This module ensures that future healthcare professionals are well-prepared to provide inclusive and culturally competent care to transgender and gender-diverse communities.

What are the most pressing issues or needs in transgender healthcare today, and what steps can the healthcare community take to address them?

The main issues in transgender healthcare today are equitable access and mental health improvement. Discrimination, lack of culturally sensitive providers, and limited access to gender-affirming care are common barriers. Solutions include comprehensive provider training, creating inclusive healthcare environments, and advocating for policy changes. Collaboration among healthcare stakeholders is essential to prioritise transgender healthcare and promote inclusivity.

Could you share a success story or memorable patient experience that highlights the positive impact of your work in transgender healthcare?

A patient presented a prescription with a male name but identified as female. Respecting their identity, I asked for their preferred name, which was female, and dispensed their medication with that name on the label. This small act had a profound impact. They expressed gratitude for having their correct name on the medication label, rather than their previous “deadname.” They even mentioned keeping the medication box as a keepsake, marking this moment as the first time they felt seen and respected in the healthcare system. This experience underscores how honouring someone’s name and pronouns can promote inclusivity and support emotional well-being in transgender healthcare.

What advice do you have for aspiring pharmacists interested in LGBTQ+ healthcare or transgender health advocacy?

For aspiring pharmacists interested in LGBTQ+ healthcare and transgender health advocacy, my advice is to acknowledge that this is a rapidly evolving field. Start by educating yourself thoroughly to ensure respectful communication and the creation of inclusive healthcare environments. This involves understanding the unique healthcare needs of this community and staying updated on the latest developments in gender-affirming therapies. Embrace the role of a healthcare advocate, promoting social justice and equity in healthcare access regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. By continually educating yourself and advocating for LGBTQ+ healthcare, you can make a meaningful difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals.

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