Passion for Pharmacy

Lautoka-born and Nadi-raised Sandhaya (Sandy) Bhawan became the first Fijian to be designated a Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society for her outstanding contribution to the advancement of the Pharmacy profession. LAUMATA LAUANO talks to the pharmacist about her journey and dedication, to not only growing the profession for our Pacific people, but eliminating inequities in access to medicines for Maori and Pacific communities.



An uncle in Fiji was Sandy Bhawan’s inspiration into joining the pharmaceutical profession.


She describes her family as “very poor”, but Sandy’s grandparents managed to send her uncle Mr Pushp Chand to England to study.


In 1972 he returned to Fiji, having graduated from the University of Bradford as a pharmacist. It was a first for their family and soon Pushp opened his own pharmacy, Island Pharmacy.


“A lot of my childhood was spent with him and his daughter in the pharmacy,” Sandy recalls fondly, “especially seeing how his role was significant in the health care of people … he was always there to help people.


“When it was closing time, people would still come knocking at his door for medication. He’d be off again, opening the pharmacy to help. He was such an inspiration.”


But as a teenager, Sandy’s world was rocked by Fiji’s first military coup which took place in May 1987.


“It was quite a tumultuous time and racial tensions were high,” she recalls.


“Because of a whole lot of things that we didn’t understand as children, my parents felt uncertain about a future for us if we stayed on in Fiji.”


Her parents had careers and were well-established, with lots of friends and family. But they decided to emigrate to New Zealand for the sake of Sandy and her siblings.


“The sacrifices were bigger on their part than it was on mine,” she recalls.


“Us 15-year-olds are quite selfish when you think about it. When I reached the age of my parents when they migrated, I thought, ‘My gosh, if I had to leave everything I’ve got here and go to a completely new country… they really sacrificed a lot.’”


Sandy turned her parents’ sacrifices into successes, graduating from Victoria University with a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology and genetics and working as a science technician.


However, there was still the underlying passion for pharmacy and urge to help people, spurred on by her mother who kept her initial aspirations fresh in her mind.


“My mum was quite instrumental in reminding me. She would say ‘What about pharmacy, you always had an interest in it’. So I applied just to see, and while I was working as a science technician, I had an offer from the School of Pharmacy, University of Otago.”


Sandy finished top of her class, the first Pacific student to receive the accolade. It motivated her to do well in her profession and reminded her once again of why her uncle pursued the career.


She applied her give-back mentality for her communities and the Pacific to her work ethic, which she has done extensively before moving into the newly created role of Principal Adviser to the Access Equity team.


It’s tasked with eliminating inequities in access to medicines that are already funded by Pharmaceutical Management Agency, better known as PHARMAC. The New Zealand Crown entity decides, on behalf of District Health Boards, which medicines and pharmaceutical products are subsidised for use in the community and public hospitals.



At the time of our interview, Sandy was Acting Manager for Access Equity and has since been promoted to the role permanently.


“Our priority populations are Māori and Pacific and our focus is to eliminate the inequities of access to medicine,” she says.


“This is medicine that is already funded and available out there, but there are a whole lot of barriers Pacific people face getting to it and, once they’ve got it, understanding how to take medicine in a way that improves their health. There are huge barriers to be understood and changes in the way that we can do this.”


Inherently Pacific, both in terms of values and homeland, Sandy believes hard work, patience, perseverance and resilience on her part, along with a calling from God, has her in a place to contribute in her own way to the betterment of our Pacific people’s health.


Her work across the board both at policy development, training and on the frontline in primary care has been relentless.


According to the Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand Fellowship Award Citation, Sandy’s work over a period of eight years transformed the scope of pharmacy practice, having developed and led the policy work on the Medicines Management Competence Framework, including the Medicines Use Review competencies and accreditation standards. This framework forms the basis of the current National Pharmacist Service Framework.


Most significantly, Sandy was instrumental in the development and implementation of the new Pharmacist Prescriber scope of practice.


The nomination to be designated a Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society comes from one’s own peers and it still overwhelms, humbles and makes her proud to get recognition from her own peers. Knowing it’s likely the first time an indo-Fijian and perhaps someone from the Pacific has been awarded it, was even more overwhelming.


“It’s very, very special for me,” she says.


“I’ve really felt like my parents’ sacrifice was worth it, which gives me a lovely feeling.”


Read this and other stories like it in issue 74 of SPASIFIK Magazine out now