Overcoming injustice: Dr Ada Cheung
Dr Ada Cheung (MBBS (Hons) 2003, PhD 2017) has fought for her medical achievements and her award-winning career every step of the way. Now, her research is changing national medical policy.
Dr Ada Cheung was drawn to medicine for the complex problems it presented and for the opportunity to make a difference. Since 2017, she has focused her physician expertise and her research skills on improving medical services for transgender Australians.
Dr Cheung established the Trans Medical Research group in 2017, as part of her NHMRC early career fellowship, with the aim to conduct research that would guide clinical care improvements for the Australian transgender community.
“I love my job. Coming to work every day is not coming to work, it’s a life. I’ve got a vision and I’m getting little wins along the way. That motivates me to keep going,” she says.
Dr Cheung began seeing transgender patients in 2016 after a lunch with Professor Jeffrey Zajac (MBBS 1977, PhD 1985), Director of Endocrinology and Head of the University of Melbourne Department of Medicine at Austin Health.
“Jeffrey was seeing more and more transgender people, but he couldn’t find anybody else willing to see them. I was astounded that doctors could refuse to see patients,” she says.
At the time, Dr Cheung was near to completing her PhD, in which she explored the long-term muscle and bone effects of hormone therapy for prostate cancer. Her award-winning research provided many opportunities for career progression, but it had not been an easy road.
“As an Asian woman with two young children, I was used to fighting gender discrimination. I had endured racial abuse just before speaking with Jeffrey,” she says.
“When I heard about discrimination in the transgender community, it really struck a chord with me.”
She started with a project that documented the 10-fold rise in transgender patients seeking medical services over five years. They also did a study with 1000 Australian transgender adults.
“I listened to hundreds of stories of difficulty accessing medical care and societal discrimination. These patients couldn’t find doctors willing to treat them,” she says.
“Our survey asked what members of the trans community thought the top priority for funding should be or what their biggest health issue was. It wasn’t hormone therapy. It was better training for doctors in trans health.”
Next, they surveyed doctors and found that 96 per cent of them had never been taught about transgender health in medical school. Many of them lacked confidence and wanted more training. “We took our research to the Department of Human Services and the Minister for Equality, the Hon Martin Foley MP (MCom 2001), and the government responded,” she says.
In late 2018, the Victorian Government announced an investment of $3.4 million to better meet the health needs of trans and gender diverse Victorians. Over 2019, multidisciplinary health clinics will be established in Ballarat and Preston, and a state-wide training program will be implemented for health professionals.
“It’s been an awful lot of work, but it’s been really satisfying to see our research translated into policy and now delivered on the ground.”
Dr Cheung was surprised when she was accepted to study at Melbourne Medical School.
“Everybody looked down on us growing up. My parents emigrated in the 1970s with nothing. Home life was chaos. My father suffered from severe mental illness and spent most of my childhood incarcerated. People thought I would end up as nothing. Getting into medicine broke the stereotype,” she says.
Dr Cheung met her husband, Will Lee (MBBS 2003), while studying at Melbourne Medical School. They have two young children, five and six.
“Time with the kids is very much entwined with our work. They do a weekend ward round with my husband, or they see one of us doing talks, which they come along to. I do a lot of my research at home once the kids have gone to bed. I want them to grow up in a world which respects diversity, which accepts people for being themselves. They drive me.”
Dr Cheung plans for the Trans Medical Research group to launch a longitudinal Australian gender health study, a little like the Census, to guide their research and to shape their goals.
“We want the study to empower the transgender community to guide policy makers into investing in health and wellbeing programs for the community,” she says.
“At the moment, 40 per cent of trans people have attempted suicide. We don’t understand the long-term effects of hormone therapies, we don’t know what happens with ageing, heart disease or cancer. Our team want to provide an evidence base for treatments and to see mental health outcomes improve. Societal culture needs to change, and we hope to contribute a little,” she says.
If you would like to donate to trans medical research, you can nominate this cause via the Melbourne Medical School donations page.