Suhayla Dhanji Merali

Advanced specialist pharmacist for perinatal services, Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust
Suhayla Dhanji

Suhayla Dhanji Merali was nominated for embedding a role for pharmacy in a service that previously didn’t have one, and for championing better care for vulnerable patients. 

As an advanced specialist pharmacist for perinatal services across five boroughs in Central and North West London, Dhanji Merali provides care and organises multiple outreach programmes to destigmatise mental health and help people get the support they need. 

Her motivation comes partly from her own experience: “I became really passionate about supporting women at a time where there was no support really and I’ve gone through that myself and felt quite isolated.” 

Dhanji Merali had anxiety following the birth of her second child and, while on maternity leave in 2020, discovered the job that has become her passion, despite it being a departure from her previous roles working in medicines information, medicines compliance and care homes. 

Colleagues describe Dhanji Merali as inspirational in her drive for holistic patient care, particularly for Muslim women, helping services to tailor their approach and training other healthcare professionals in a new type of health coaching. 

“I’ve coined the term ambivalence coaching, so when patients are not sure about taking their medication during pregnancy, I use that as a tool to support them to make that decision and really promote informed patient choice,” she explains. 

There’s a really big stigma around mental health and what I try to do is talk to women who are mostly from a Muslim background, or Asian, because I have that lived experience

It involves taking time to understand the patient’s concerns, values and what is important to them. It is about supporting their choice whatever that might be, she adds. “It’s quite a complex conversation to have with someone who might have mental health difficulties, or a language barrier. There’s a really big stigma around mental health and what I try to do is talk to women who are mostly from a Muslim background, or Asian, because I have that lived experience.” 

When you try to understand where someone is coming from and look at the whole person, you’re much more likely to get positive results, she adds, with nine out of ten patients agreeing to take a medication that before they were not open to. “I think I’ve only had maybe one case where someone refused and I respected that decision because that was a choice,” she says. 

Throughout her career, Dhanji Merali has always been proactive, she says. This now shows in the huge amount of outreach work she has done with Muslim communities. She sits on an NHS service user forum diversity board, works with social enterprises, and has started a project in her own mosque to raise awareness of mental health issues and start discussions about how to break down barriers. 

“We’ve had a huge response and we’re now in the process of looking at initiatives, such as a confidential mental health helpline using trained volunteers,” Suhayla explains. They’re also looking at implementing faith-sensitive baby classes and playgroups for the community, increasing peer support at work, befriending schemes and workshops that increase awareness of mental health.  

Dhanji Merali is also making connections online, having set up an Instagram page to promote what her trust’s perinatal mental health service does. Her strong belief in the power of building connections to improve services is evident in her use of the ‘FutureNHS’ platform to make it easy for the perinatal service, which is spread across five community teams, to share resources and best practice. That work spread from a similar project she did to create a national platform for perinatal teams.  

If she has an idea — and all the evidence says Suhayla has lots of fantastic ideas — she just wants to present it and get on with it, she says. “With five different teams and five different ways of doing things, it has not been an easy ride. But I know if we keep trying we will get quality improvement.” 

She adds: “I think my experience of the health service and what worked for me and what didn’t work for me as a woman of colour, as a woman from a faith background, but also as a healthcare professional, really informed the way I approached my practice. People are not just things that we put into boxes.” 

Panel comments 

“A true champion of patient-centred care” 

“Has done brilliant work helping vulnerable patients make better healthcare choices” 

“Superb work”

Meet the rest of The Pharmaceutical Journal’s Women to Watch 2022 here

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, December 2022, Vol 309, No 7968;309(7968)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2022.1.165957

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