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L to R back row: Caroline Wood, Sophia Wilkinson, Graham Bagley, front row: Sheena Cameron, Anne Whitehouse, Hannah Freeman

Communications played a vital part in the RECOVERY Trial’s success, from raising awareness of the study to support recruitment, to disseminating the results, and highlighting the need for large-scale studies to provide definitive results. These activities were coordinated by the Communications Team at Oxford Population Health, who used a variety of methods to meet the needs of different audiences.

Anne Whitehouse, Director of Communications and Public Engagement

I oversee communications and public engagement for the RECOVERY trial. This includes working across a variety of channels to ensure that we meet our communications objectives which have included: raising awareness of the trial to support recruitment; disseminating the evidence from RECOVERY broadly and clearly to improve the treatment of COVID-19 patients worldwide; and using RECOVERY’s profile to influence the future of clinical research for the better. We work with and consider many different stakeholders, including the clinical and communications teams at hospital sites, study participants, journalists, regulatory agencies, and our funders. These are all linked to the trial in different ways and have different information needs. 

It has been incredible to work on a study that has generated such intense interest. The highlight was when we announced the first major breakthrough in the COVID-19 response on 16 June 2020 – the finding that the inexpensive steroid dexamethasone saves the lives of seriously ill patients. Because this finding would save lives immediately, we made the decision to announce the results rapidly, rather than waiting for a preprint, or a peer-reviewed scientific paper which would have taken too long.

There was a huge amount of interest from media outlets all over the world, unlike anything I have experienced before or since – we had around 300 media enquiries that afternoon and evening! It was really rewarding to see the results put into practice in the UK that day, and in many countries across the world shortly afterwards.

Graham Bagley, Communications and Events Manager

My main role for RECOVERY is to facilitate the online collaborators’ meetings. These hour-long sessions are open to everyone involved in the RECOVERY trial (such as hospital doctors, pharmacists, and research nurses) and their function is to enable the study team to communicate important updates to all of the participating UK hospitals in one go. This was particularly important during the peak times of COVID-19 infections, when drugs were entering and leaving the study very quickly, so the protocol kept changing. The meetings have a chat function to allow attendees to raise questions with the study team. At the height of the pandemic, we held collaborators’ meetings every fortnight, but these days it is every few months.

When RECOVERY initially launched, the software for collaborative online meetings wasn’t as advanced as now, so we struggled to find a platform that could cope with the volume of people attending, typically between 700 – 800 at each meeting. A contact in the IT Team suggested Live Events, but no department within the University had used it before, so I didn’t have anyone to turn to for advice. After a lot of troubleshooting and a steep learning curve, I eventually got it to work. Despite the initial stress, it now feels very satisfying to have contributed to such a worthwhile aspect of RECOVERY, and I feel privileged to have been given a behind the scenes glimpse of how the study is run.

Sheena Cameron, Website Editor

My role was to set up the RECOVERY trial website from scratch. Having a single site available to all those involved in the research is crucial to the smooth running of the trial to ensure that the collaborators working in hospitals around the country can immediately access information such as the trial protocol, training videos, patient information, and informed consent forms. The website is also an important resource for journalists as it is provides information about all aspects of the study including the trial results.

The launch of the trial coincided with the announcement of the first lockdown in March 2020, so I was working at break-neck speed at my kitchen table to ensure that the website was live as soon as the trial was launched. I continue to maintain and improve the website, for example developing an international section when the trial expanded beyond the UK. I update the site as the trial protocol evolves and new drugs are introduced, so that collaborators can easily find the most up-to-date information.

It was very gratifying to hear that other trial websites have adopted a similar approach to the RECOVERY trial website – they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

It feels great to be part of the team working on such an important trial and to play a role in contributing to such ground-breaking research.

Hannah Freeman, Public Engagement and Involvement Officer

I manage the social media activity for the RECOVERY trial, posting content on Twitter using the study’s dedicated hashtag #RECOVERYtrial and sharing content produced by partners. This includes everything from new results to interviews with the chief investigators and patient stories. I particularly liked a tweet showing the Salisbury Hospital research team’s RECOVERY cake in the shape of the coronavirus! A particular highlight was Clinical Trials Day on 20 May 2020 and 2021. Hospital teams working on RECOVERY from across the UK shared pictures to acknowledge and celebrate the hard work of everyone involved in the study; many of them posed with homemade banners and posters. Given how many people use social media worldwide, I believe it has played an important role in raising awareness of the study, motivating those involved, and communicating the results.

Sophia Wilkinson, Communications and Public Engagement Officer

My role is to coordinate and organise the involvement of former RECOVERY participants and other members of the public in the design and implementation of the study. This is important, even for a trial set up at lightning speed like RECOVERY, for a number of reasons. These include to make sure that the way the trial is carried out is acceptable to the public, to help with the transparency and accountability of the trial, and to ensure that ‘ordinary people’ (ie non-scientists) can understand all the information they are provided with about the study.

When the study first launched, there was no RECOVERY-specific patient group, so members of Oxford Population Health’s Public Advisory Panel reviewed information leaflets given to patients or their families, an ‘explainer’ animation and the consent form. A RECOVERY-specific Public Advisory Panel was established in July 2021, with representation from across England and Scotland. So far, this group have been consulted about what happens to the data that are collected about them, and advised on communications that are sent out to participants with updates about the study.

The most memorable moment for me was when we held the first meeting of former RECOVERY patients who had volunteered to join the trial’s Public Advisory Panel. It really hit me hard to find out just how mentally and physically traumatising being severely ill with COVID-19 had been for our volunteers – and it brought home just what an amazing discovery dexamethasone was.

Caroline Wood, former Communications Officer

My role is to assist Anne with media and press activities for Oxford Population Health, including for the RECOVERY Trial. Often this has involved very rapid turnaround times, for instance writing an urgent press release to announce a new result from the study. It has been amazing to have helped secure coverage of RECOVERY in leading outlets, including BBC News, the Today programme, Nature, Science Magazine, all the major UK newspapers, global outlets such as CNN, and even a new three-part documentary series Extra Life: A short history of living longer. I also try to communicate the lessons learnt from RECOVERY’s innovative design to UK policy makers, for instance by contributing evidence to relevant Select Committee inquiries. It was particularly gratifying when RECOVERY was specifically mentioned in the UK Government’s White Paper on The Future of UK Clinical Research Delivery.

Because most of the media attention focuses on RECOVERY’s co-chief investigators, I have been keen to raise the profile of the wide range of different people involved in the study. One of the most rewarding activities I have been involved with was writing a series of case studies for the trial website. Each of these features an ‘unsung hero’ for the trial, including a research nurse, a clinician, a member of the data monitoring committee, and the IT team. I hope these will help people to realise what an incredible team effort RECOVERY has been.