Dr Sudesna Roy Chowdhury: The do-gooder determined to break down language barriers

by Adora Wong  /   December 5, 2020

She created a medical translation site so that healthcare workers could communicate with migrant workers

Even before she started work officially, this young doctor had helped to save lives with her quick thinking. Her medical translation site TranslateFor.sg was used by countless healthcare workers to communicate with migrant workers at the height of the outbreak.

At one point, it got over 50,000 hits in a month. So it’s hardly a hyperbole when we say that her website helped to save lives, although Dr Roy Chowdhury’s humility would beg to differ. What she didn’t tell journalists previously was that before trying to build the website herself, she had reached out to two guys who work in tech, in hopes of getting their help to bring her idea to life. 

The first guy told her that he’d need two weeks. The second told her that it was too ambitious and basically impossible. He said she wouldn’t be able to do it. 

Out of sheer defiance, and a sense of urgency as a medical worker, Dr Roy Chowdhury got down to work. 

“We can’t afford to wait around for two weeks during a pandemic,” she says. Over the subsequent weeks, she worked on improving the website’s functionality and interface, optimising it for mobile. Later, software engineer Aniruddha Adhikary helped her turn it into the current TranslateFor.sg

“It wasn’t perfect,” she says of her first attempt, stressing that her main focus was functionality. “But I’m glad I didn’t wait.” 

Building a website in eight hours

The young doctor was waiting to start her housemanship when Covid-19 struck. Like most medical workers, she had been keeping up with the daily numbers and getting increasingly anxious as the count increased.

On the night of April 14, she had stayed up for the daily update. Her phone chimed at 11:58pm – migrant workers had become a significant majority of new infections, making up 280 out of the total of 386 cases, most of which were in the dormitories.

“I had a very emotional response to what was happening. At that time, we had very little information and were still trying to make sense of what was going on,” she says. Having done pro bono medical translation work before, Dr Roy Chowdhury knew that the language barrier would be a challenge for the frontliners. So, she got to work immediately. With the help of her family, she managed to cobble together a list of common medical history questions, translated them to Bengali, and recorded audio for all of them. 

“Basic questions like name, age, how many people you live with and contact history – we translated as much as we could and had the translations verified by native speakers. I also uploaded audio recordings as some migrant workers might not be able to read their language,” she adds. She stayed up all night, uploading them on a website that she had built herself, and in eight hours, her work was done. She quickly sent the link to medical workers whom she knew were heading down to the dormitories at 11am. It got to them just in time. 

Good response from the ground

“There was a dental professional who thanked me for the website and said that it really guided her in what to ask during a medical consultation. I was taken aback. I was like, ‘You’re a dentist. Why do you need to do a Covid-19 consultation?’ It turned out that with the rising need to provide medical care and conduct swab tests for the migrant workers, many healthcare professionals were deployed to the dorms.”

“I was just glad that there was so much interdisciplinary work, and that something else actually came out of the website that wasn’t part of the original aim,” adds Dr Roy Chowdhury.  

TranslateFor.sg has expanded to include translations of 10 languages, including Punjabi, Hindi, Tagalog and Burmese. It also grew to include translations that will be helpful for other kinds of medical consultations, not just Covid-19. 

“The website worked exactly in the way it was intended to, and bridged the gap in communication between the healthcare workers and patients,” attests Dr Gaurav Deep Singh, who used it for work.

“It not only helped when we assessed the patients’ conditions, but more so in the counselling process, where we explained to them what was happening along the way.” 

Fresh out of med school 

Both of Dr Roy Chowdhury’s older sisters are doctors, and she readily admits that their career choices had some degree of influence over hers.

“Having two sisters as doctors definitely made a medical career seem less daunting. It was like, ‘If they can do it, I can do it too’,” she lets on.

When asked if her parents are proud that they have three doctors for daughters, she laughs before saying: “Honestly, I still have the same problems as everyone else my age. I still get nagged at when my room is messy, or when I’m not home early enough. We don’t get special privileges just because we’re medical professionals.”  

My eventual aim is to make healthcare more accessible to vulnerable populations.

Dr Sudesna Roy Chowdhury

Many times over the course of our conversation, Dr Roy Chowdhury reminded us that she had just started her medical career. In fact, when we first presented her with this award, she questioned her place, citing her newness to the medical field. 

But it’s apparent that for someone so young, she has a clear vision of what she wants to achieve. And she has amibitious plans.

“My eventual aim is to make healthcare more accessible to vulnerable populations, like women in other parts of the world who are systematically disadvantaged. I’m aware that I’m still so young in my career, so how I achieve that path will show by itself.”

Currently, when not busy dispensing patient care at Changi General Hospital, Dr Roy Chowdhury educates herself on local issues and government policies, so that she is clued in on the causes she wants to champion. She reckons that if she wasn’t in healthcare, she would be involved in advocacy work. She also hopes to be able to lend more support to vulnerable populations, such as teenage mothers, lower-income individuals and the disabled, one day. As for her future plans, she hopes to be able to connect with other people who are “cut from the same cloth” and who wish to collaborate in enabling “radical change”. 

And judging by the current working relationships she has had with others, there will likely be plenty of opportunities for her to work with like-minded groups.

“Sudesna can emotionally connect with people from diverse walks of life,” says Aniruddha, who had worked with her on TranslateFor.sg. “I admire her ability to channel her emotions as the driving force behind real-world initiatives with far-reaching efforts for the community. In working with her, I was able to appreciate her inclusivity-first approach to leadership.”