Global Health alumna Suvanya Naidu works to improve patient communication in South Africa

Name: Suvanya Naidu
Degree: Master's in Global Health
Graduation year: 2015

Suvanya Naidu

Tell us your story!

I was born in Durban, South Africa during a time of great political upheaval. I’ve always taken an interest in issues related to quality of life and wanted to study something that would enable me to help people and to travel, so speech therapy seemed like a good fit. I studied at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (Westville campus), which was very intense, and only a handful of us graduated in my final year. After a short stint as a language teacher in Japan, I had observed at ‘face-value’ how differently the Japanese aged compared to South Africans and it prompted me to start looking at how good governance affects health.

I felt that services for the elderly could be improved in South Africa, and I wanted to learn more about ‘ageing’ from a global perspective. I searched for study opportunities and was awarded a scholarship to study Global Health at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and focused my research study on the topic of “Ageing in South Africa”.

KI is a very international university that has a strong interdisciplinary research focus that appealed to me. The international presence in my Global Health programme was amazing, which guaranteed stimulating and thought-provoking discussions. The environment is professional and the lecturers were dedicated. My best memory was having the opportunity to attend a lecture by Hans Rosling, an extraordinary personality with immense passion and a creative ability to explain global statistics simply.

I returned to South Africa after completing my studies at KI and worked at a Neurological Rehabilitation Facility as well as hospitals. Being a medical Speech-Language Therapist has enabled me to observe directly how the burden of disease affects all involved at different levels.

One constant feature in my career has been my work to improve the communication and swallow function of adult patients with neurologically acquired communication/swallow disorders.  I've worked with hundreds, if not over a thousand, stroke patients in South Africa at public and private hospitals/rehabilitation settings. I've also been involved in student training.

I've been in private practice since January 2019. Covid-19 and the natural instability of private practice in a slow economy has brought many challenges so I decided to close the practice at end of May 2020. At the same time, I have been involved in planning capacity development workshops for Speech Therapists in Durban and the first event that was meant to happen in May, and will have to be postponed due to lockdown restrictions. I was currently working on an exciting Global Communication Board Initiative to create awareness about augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

Hospital Communication Board

This is an image (right) of a functional hospital communication board that can be used by patients in hospital or rehabilitation settings. After life-altering surgery, or after experiencing a severe stroke, some patients are left unable to talk. Therefore, these patients benefit from using this board as it allows them to point to the images to express their most basic needs. The translations also help the Speech Therapist or Nurse to communicate at a basic level to the patient in his/her home language.

I sometimes work with international patients with expressive language difficulties in South African hospitals, and Google translate has been pretty amazing to help bridge that linguistic barrier. My goal is to have this basic communication board translated into as many languages as possible. 

Language needs

So far, we have 9 official South African languages represented (Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans and English) and many of the major global languages (Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Arabic). If anyone would like to volunteer to translate this board into any particular language, please get in touch with me. 

Since a communication board is considered a low-tech AAC option, I would like to emphasize that all languages are welcome, especially those languages spoken in low to middle income countries (Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, South America, etc) where there is a need to create awareness about AAC in rural villages where indigenous languages are spoken. 

Translations have commenced so please get in touch with me if you are interested.

How do you help?

I will email you an English template and will need you to provide the actual print alphabet in the specific language, and where necessary, the phonetic translation as well so that the health professional can attempt to pronounce these words easily to the patient. I can assist with phonetic transcription where necessary. Communication encompasses so much more than spoken words, it involves facial expression, body language, signs, symbols, pointing, eye gaze, etc.


Would you like to help with my initiative? Please get in touch with me at 



Suvanya's other ventures: "The Future of Food" initiative

As a recipient of a Swedish Insitute scholarship to study at KI, I now belong to the Swedish Institute Alumni Network, which offers opportunities to revisit Stockholm for events, and can provide funding for various global initiatives. In December of 2016, I attended the Nobel Week Dialogues in Stockholm, which featured the topic of The Future of Food - your Plate, our Planet. Based on this theme, I received financial support from the Swedish Institute to hold my first event in South Africa on 5 August 2017. It was a dynamic event that hosted a variety of speakers with broad backgrounds ranging from Food Security, Diet, Health & Sustainability, Meat Regulation and Antimicrobial Resistance to Yogic Farming and a Meditation Commentary on Mindful Eating.

I realized that I have a passion for sharing relevant scientific research with the general public. My future goal is to hold research-related public events in South Africa pertaining mainly to health and quality of life.

The event was filmed and can be found here >>

Content reviewer:
Peter Bergman