Meet João Salazar – from advocacy to agency
João Salazar is Senior Director of Client Consultancy in the Patient Engagement Center of Excellence at OPEN Health. He has been part of the team since early 2021, but his experience in the wider healthcare advertising industry goes back nearly 10 years.
Before that, João was a leading voice in patient advocacy for blood cancers, first becoming involved in a small hospital-based organization in his hometown, Porto, Portugal.
João shares his story of his experience in patient advocacy and what makes patient engagement special to him.
My Dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma when he was 50. I was 21 at the time. He started chemo, so I went to the hospital with him on a daily basis. Around the same time, I founded a small marketing start-up and was studying at night school for a bachelor’s degree.
As a result of dad’s illness, I joined a small patient group at the hospital. The group consisted of a lot of good people with a lot of goodwill, but no professional structure and no funding. Back then, the aim was to support patients and caregivers by giving them tea and biscuits while they were at the hospital.
After a few years of volunteering with the local patient organization’s marketing department, the board of directors of the charity nominated me to become chief executive. I knew it would be a challenge to overhaul how things operated, but soon I was involved in everything and motivating the team to aim higher and achieve even bigger goals.
I began reaching out to pharma companies and healthcare professionals and building relationships. My aim was always to bring patients, caregivers, HCPs, pharma, policy-makers, and researchers together to focus on matters that could improve patients’ quality of life.
We invited a volunteer committee of medics to help translate trial results into Portuguese and to review patient/caregivers’ materials we were developing. We made leaflets and educational materials for patients. We developed a program where we offered psychological support for HCPs. We rebuilt our website and organized all kinds of events. One of our early ones, a cycling event to raise lymphoma awareness, started with 100 participants, growing to more than 1400 four years later. We even had celebrity endorsements. Then, once we had laid the groundwork, we pursued political lobbying, aiming to have awareness of blood cancers included in the political agenda. Eventually our support helped two bills pass through the Portuguese Parliament with a big majority.
I was in my late 20s when all this took off. There was a point when I thought, “This is too much,” and that I had to take a step back. I had honored dad’s memory and laid the foundations for other leaders to carry on the journey, and I knew I needed the opportunity to pursue my own dreams.
A natural shift to agency work
I started thinking about what could come next. I wondered about working for a patient organisation full time—not just volunteering—but this option would have its own challenges. I thought about the amazing disease awareness campaigns I had worked on as an advocate, with help from my contacts in the advertising world. I realized that that was the kind of work that I wanted to keep doing.
I moved to England, where I eventually found a role in healthcare advertising, doing exactly what I wanted to do. And when I first learned about the patient team at OPEN Health, I knew I’d found the challenge for me, and I moved over as soon as I could. I started in May 2021—May the 4th, in fact. Maybe there’s something to that!
A truly rewarding career in patient engagement
It’s been over a year now and I've loved every second since. Our patient engagement team offers something truly special. We do work mostly on behalf of pharma clients, but the work our clients ask us to do benefits patients directly. Often the work feels bigger than myself or any one person or business, because there are people who really need help in a very challenging time of their lives and it is a privilege to support them.
There is something really lovely about the patient engagement group as a team too. We’re human, and all our colleagues are naturally very kind people. I suppose it’s not really a surprise—after all, empathy is at the very core of what we do. We care, as anybody lucky enough to work in patient engagement should.