OVID Health founder Jenny Ousbey discusses the pandemic, patient advocacy and the Patient Partnership Index

What is your background and current role?

I started as a young reporter and political correspondent on a regional newspaper and founded specialist health comms agency OVID Health in 2018. It’s been an interesting journey!

One of the most formative roles I had was as political adviser to the Care Services Minister during a time of major health reforms. It shaped my thinking in terms of how the NHS, politics and policy are never too far away from any PR or communications campaign.

Before embarking on agency life I ran the public affairs function at the NHS Confederation, the trade body for the NHS.

What does your day-to-day job involve?

My job as managing director is to oversee the quality of client delivery, and right now we’re on a very ambitious growth strategy after a year where we grew our share of the market significantly, winning industry awards along the way. This means I spend a lot of time overseeing new business pitches, as well as shaping what our thought leadership and positioning is.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time recently ensuring our company culture and values are as strong as ever in these virtual times – it’s something we take seriously because I strongly believe nurturing the values that are important to your team means you attract clients who hold similar values.

What do you find the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your work?

Seeing that my team are happy and proud of what they do is the best bit of my job. The worst bit of my job is that for pretty much a year we haven’t been able to see people face to face and a lot of what we do is about relationships. Virtual will never quite make up for this in my mind!

There aren’t many jobs in the world where you persuade a client they should let your team run a vaccine uptake campaign amongst their BAME healthcare workers – and the next week it’s up and running and you’re finding out their hospitals are seeing more of their health workers getting protected against COVID-19 as a result. Pretty amazing stuff.

I also love that we get such variety. For example, we’re working in the cell and gene therapy space a lot right now, but we’re also shaping a pharma company’s patient advocacy strategy across many disease areas. It’s always incredibly intellectually stimulating and I learn a lot from my team!

What inspired you to create the Patient Partnership Index?

I advise a mix of patient groups, public sector bodies, providers and pharmaceutical companies and was always struck by how partnership working when it came to communications, campaigns and advocacy could be so much better. Both in terms of impact and in terms of making it truly collaborative rather than transactional. So the Index was the culmination of thinking over many years, and in setting up OVID Health one of the things I always wanted us to do was to generate our own industry initiatives, as well as deliver client projects. Because for me it’s about using our expertise to do what needs to be done, as well as what can be done.

What do you hope it will ultimately achieve?

That patient organisations will feel more empowered and armed with the right knowledge to shape partnerships which have an even greater impact on patients. It’s ultimately about ensuring mutually beneficial communications, advocacy and campaigns deliver better healthcare. From a pharmaceutical perspective it’s about raising the bar so companies are ready, willing and able to deliver partnerships which meet their commercial objectives but also those of the patient organisations in an impactful, innovative way.

The concept of patient-centricity is mainstream now in research and development, including in clinical trials and patient support programmes. But the Index looks beyond ‘centricity’ in R&D and into partnerships of equals for three reasons: one, because ‘centricity’ can be passive; two, it is traditionally tied to R&D; and three, because top quality communications between companies and patient groups is about collaborating as equals.

How have you seen patient advocacy impacted by COVID-19?

Patient stories (and therefore advocacy) have been some of the most powerful ‘communications’ moments of the pandemic. They’ve moved people to take action and frankly have saved lives. Take the recent example of radio DJ Jo Whiley talking very movingly about her sister with learning disabilities awaiting her vaccination. Just a week later the guidance was updated to enable this to happen. It wasn’t just this one story that made it happen – but this story was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In my mind, 2021 will be the year where the power of patient communities in delivering advocacy and communications programmes will shine through, despite the many challenges charities have faced in terms of funding and fundraising cuts.

But this will only happen if everyone (charities, the public sector and industry) works together to deliver transformative change in partnership with each other.

Do you think the pandemic will have a lasting impact on healthcare communication?

Yes. The pandemic proved beyond any doubt that good communications can save lives.

It’s also shown more clearly than ever that you cannot always tackle false facts with true facts. It’s demonstrated how emotion holds more sway with policymakers and decision makers than cold hard data.

All of this doesn’t negate the need for science and data though. Never has that been more apparent this year than in the patient/people advocacy required by politicians, policymakers, industry and others to deliver effective public health messaging to encourage people to have COVID-19 vaccines.

What are your hopes for the relationship between the NHS, pharma industry and patients in future?

For many years we’ve seen lots of great partnership working between all three, but this is sometimes because of particular leaders or personalities and despite the structural or cultural barriers in place. My hope for the future is that the NHS will come out of this pandemic more open and able to deliver better outcomes for patients through innovation (whether digital or otherwise) which puts what the patient wants first.

As an agency we do a lot of work in cell and gene therapies and I am hopeful that this is an area where there is much potential for patients, the industry and the NHS to work together to make the UK a global leader in ensuring access and uptake for this next generation of medicines.

What keeps you awake at night?

Aside from foxes and traffic (!), leading a health comms agency during a pandemic is a rollercoaster. We’ve been right in the heart of it and sometimes that means nothing keeps me awake because I’m absolutely ready to recharge my batteries!

Professionally and personally I’m also worried about the backlog of treatment in services for diseases such as cancer, I imagine that’s keeping many, many people awake at night too and we all have to work together to come up with fast and effective solutions.

For more information on the Patient Partnership Index and how to enter for 2021, please visit https://patientpartnershipindex.co.uk/ Deadline for entries is Friday 14 May.