Interview with Liam O'Toole, CEO Versus Arthritis
It’s been almost a year since the announcement that the charities Arthritis Research UK and Arthritis Care were merging. Following an extensive process which involved over a thousand people with arthritis as well as the clinical community, the new charity’s name and identity has been revealed as Versus Arthritis.
We took a tour of their offices in Farringdon which uses state-of-the-art technology designed specifically for people with musculoskeletal conditions. Every detail – from desks, chairs, sofas and wellness rooms - was chosen to support the needs of people with arthritis and related conditions. The office is now an exemplar of best practice.
We talked to the head of the new charity, chief executive Liam O’Toole, to find out what the merger means for our community of members. He told us how the charity will be more ambitious, braver and ready to tackle the low public recognition of the condition.
Last month the news emerged that the charity formed by the merger of Arthritis Research UK and Arthritis Care would be called Versus Arthritis. We sat down with chief executive, Liam O’Toole, to find out how the new charity’s brand was developed and its plans for the future.
Merging and changing the names of two well-established charities is a big step, how did you arrive at the name Versus Arthritis?
We didn’t want to just put two organisations together. We wanted to combine the best of both to create a new organisation that was bigger, better and different. Our biggest challenge is that musculoskeletal conditions remain pretty much invisible, particularly the pain, fatigue and isolation that come with it. It’s also largely unrecognised by the public, policy-makers and funders.
We don’t have the recognition of other conditions, so we needed something to stand out to attract more people from all walks of life, including people with arthritis, their families, members of the public and healthcare professionals. We need them all to work with us to push back against arthritis.
We did a lot of consultation. We involved a thousand people with arthritis as well as the academic and clinical community to get feedback. What we hope the dynamic new brand and name does is convey our energy and invites people to get involved. We think that Versus Arthritis does that; it shows our ambition to do more.
You have said you want to create something new – what will we see Versus Arthritis doing that Arthritis Research UK and Arthritis Care could not?
We remain committed to outstanding research, to campaigning, to providing information and support, but with Versus Arthritis we want to be braver, more demanding and more ambitious. One of the many ways we’ll do that is to walk alongside those with musculoskeletal conditions by offering local support and advice.
Musculoskeletal conditions are often ignored and society passively accepts their impact. We want to push back on that, demand more and empower people with arthritis to demand more themselves. We want a world where society doesn’t tolerate the impact of pain, fatigue and inflammation, and the subsequent knock-on effect on mental health.
The word ‘research’ is no longer in your name – what does this mean for the importance you place on research?
We remain really committed to research, if not more ambitious. Many colleagues will have taken part in our initiatives around pain, stacking the odds in favour of a cure and improving health services; we’re going to continue with those.
What united the two charities is that we’re constantly listening to people, filtering what we hear and responding. Many of our supporters say that a cure is a big priority for them and that’s not going to go away. As well as doing more ourselves what we’re working really hard to do is influence and leverage other funders to spend more on research. The lack of recognition and the low priority impacts on research funding. We’re working hard so that in the future there is more being spent.
We also remain committed to providing support for future and current research leaders. We want to increase the vibrancy of the research sector and that’s going to need the leaders of tomorrow.
BSR has been working more closely with you over the last year including on education and awards. Where do you think there are opportunities for us to collaborate more?
Links between BSR and the legacy charities go back a long way. I think we’re moving into a closer phase where there’s more we can do in collaboration around research. One of the things that’s grown over the last few years is the voice of the legacy charities around the tables that matter with policy-makers. I think that with our powerful patient voice alongside the professionals with BSR, we will be able to punch above our weight where we haven’t done before.
What are your hopes for the organisation within the next five years?
For me the key thing is that society no longer passively tolerates pain and isolation. I think if we can really impact on the low levels of recognition, that will make a difference for the whole sector. A lot of people are suffering long-term chronic pain in isolation and don’t even know there’s anything they can do about it. If we’re reaching many more of those and they know there’s an organisation out there for them and with them, that will be a real result.
We also have ambitious plans to increase the UK investment in research. We want to create a vibrant and powerful community around the cause with people from all walks of life. I really believe we can do that. With the help of the rheumatology community and other healthcare professionals, we can really drive this up the agenda. We can’t do it on our own, we need everyone’s help to make that change.