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A fellowship journey bringing co-production in health improvement out of the shadows

A fellowship that brings together health inequalities and co-production in health improvement: Dr Oli Williams’ research journey from health inequalities and weight-related issues, to collaborative and inclusive approaches to healthcare improvement provides a fascinating insight into how a fellowship can help a researcher’s career to develop and grow.
Faye Gentile
Faye Gentile
Communications and Engagement Manager
THIS Fellow, Dr Oli Williams presenting
Illustration of 4 people struggling with stigma related to their weight

Oli is a sociologist and his PhD focused on interventions designed to reduce health inequalities, the promotion of healthy lifestyles, obesity, and weight stigma. He has had a national influence in this area of work, for example campaigning against stigmatising messaging about obesity and presenting evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Obesity. Oli has presented his work on weight stigma in creative ways, co-founding an art collective, Act With Love, which creates work that makes research on social justice issues more accessible and engaging. One project from Act With Love, The Weight of Expectation, explores the social determinants of health and obesity and tells the story of how stigma associated with body weight and size plays out in everyday life. In 2020, Oli won the Best Early Career Research category for this work in the prestigious AHRC and Wellcome Trust’s Medical Humanities Awards.

In 2018 Oli was awarded a THIS Institute Postdoctoral fellowship to be hosted at King’s College London. This enabled him to widen his research into the areas of co-production, specifically in applied health research. His interest in this area was sparked during his PhD when he found that many health interventions aimed at reducing health inequalities are developed in isolation from the people they were designed to support, rather than being co-designed with them. Through the fellowship, Oli has focused on investigating co-production, against a backdrop of uncertainty and sometimes controversy over what exactly co-production is and what role it can and should have in healthcare improvement. The project addressed this contested nature of co-production, promoting good practice with positive outcomes, and has resulted in the creation of practical resources that help others to navigate the maze of multiple, competing definitions and demonstrate how organisational structures and cultures can inhibit or promote co-production in various ways.

An illustration of large buildings shading sunlight on a wilting tree representing co-production
'Lost in the Shadows: A paper on co-production'

During his fellowship, Oli worked on numerous research articles, including an exploration of co-production in sport, exercise and health sciences; and patient and public involvement and co-production networks. Oli was also a contributing author to the THIS Institute series Elements of Improving Quality and Safety in Healthcare – Co-producing and Co-designing. In 2020, Oli co-authored a highly cited and influential paper, Lost in the shadows: reflections on the dark side of co-production, with leading figures in the field. The paper highlighted the sometimes neglected ethical underpinnings of co-production and addressed its relative merits and challenges, arguing that rather than asking whether the costs of co-production outweigh the benefits within the current academic structures, the focus should instead be on how these structures can be changed to better support and recognise the value of co-produced research.

To share these findings with a wider audience, in a collaboration with Act With Love, Oli again used an innovative and creative approach: developing a comic strip and animation that illustrate the key messages from the paper. The COVID-19 pandemic hit during Oli’s fellowship, but this led him to find new opportunities, including editing a two-volume Policy Press book on COVID-19 and co-production in health and social care research, policy and practice. Alongside academic publications Oli prioritised communicating his fellowship research in ways that would help to reach a wider audience – this included a two part episode on ‘That Co-production Podcast’ hosted by the NIHR; an episode for ‘The Qualitative Open Mic Podcast’ hosted by the Qualitative Applied Health Research Centre; and an episode of the ‘Conversations about Co-production’ vlog hosted by the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre.

Through the lifetime of his fellowship, Oli has become an expert and thought leader on participatory research and co-production, and with colleagues has secured over £500,000 of research funding for related projects, enabling him to build on this incredibly important area of research. Oli’s fellowship gave him a wide range of opportunities to develop his expertise in this area and to develop his research networks, and he has now moved into a mid-career role, with a permanent position at King’s College London as a lecturer in co-designing healthcare interventions – a post that sees him directly supervising four students, including Helen West, a new THIS Institute PhD fellow. Building capacity in healthcare improvement research is critical and Oli has been able to nurture and develop a team with different backgrounds and disciplines to contribute to this field.

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