Olav Ernstzen: chair of Healthwatch Islington

30 Sep

Everyone has a story. Tufnell Park barrister, and former West End stage manager, Olav Ernstzen brings theatrical flourishes and strategic thinking to his role as Healthwatch Islington chair – the organisation that ensures health and social care services are meeting the needs of Islington residents. Interview by Nicola Baird

Olav Ernstzen: “Once you’ve been in the theatre you can’t get out of it. Training as a barrister was my second career. I was in my late 20s and willing to fail. I was not willing to regret not finding out if I could do it.”

Olav Ernstzen, chair of Healthwatch Islington: “Once you’ve been in the theatre you can’t get out of it. Training as a barrister was my second career. I was in my late 20s and willing to fail. I was not willing to regret not finding out if I could do it.”

“I’m a Londoner,” says Olav Ernstzen who grew up in Ilford (then Essex, now Redbridge). After school he went to college in London and has lived in Tufnell Park for more than 20 years.

Even on a rainy, autumnal day Olav’s enthusiasm for life is an inspiration. It’s 10am and he’s already been to the gym. He stays on topic, but the interview is peppered with experience gleaned from his early career as a drama teacher and West End stage manager. He has a way of making a chat about people’s health care really interesting.

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Way with words
Olav is a barrister. He specialises in trusts and probate because he is visually impaired, pointing out that “paradoxically the documents may have a lot of words but there is good speech software.”

Inspired by the recent Angel Canal Festival (September 2015) he’s interested in having a go at Morris dancing. “There would be a great deal of exercise and enjoyment if a group of visually impaired people gave it a go – complete with bells and bladder on a stick – even as a one-off. That would be a good day,” he says, adding. “People who define themselves by disability confine themselves by it. It’s one of the great issues in disability – if someone is in a wheelchair it is not why they are in that wheelchair, it’s the size of the step in front of their wheels. You need to look at the ability and remove barriers.”

The same goes for community health care, whether it is temporary or even at the end of your life.

“In care homes there can be a deprivation of liberty,” says Olav. “You don’t need to lock people up – protect and enable people to go to the shops, even if they have dementia, don’t stifle them. We also inspect how the staff respect people’s dignity – like choices of food and toilet facilities. We do this objectively and because we visit several homes we get a broader view. If you have a loved one there’s a conflict between ‘that’s all there is” and if you complain ‘will it backfire’. We want to know ‘are our health centres looking after our community?’.

Olav Ernstzen met Islington Faces at Korova, the family-run coffee shop and restaurant opposite Tufnell Park. “I like it here – this was Flavours and owned by a Master Chef winner. Then it was Bunny Little’s Bakery and now Steve has taken over and is serving all day breakfasts and is open for dinner. Korova, 9 Campdale Road, N7

Olav Ernstzen met Islington Faces at Korova, the family-run coffee shop and restaurant opposite Tufnell Park. “I like it here – this was Flavours and owned by a Master Chef winner. Then it was Bunny Little’s Bakery and now Steve has taken over and is serving all day breakfasts and is open for dinner. Korova, 9 Campdale Road, N7

Places Olav Ernstzen likes in Islington

  • Menus at Tufnell Park Tavern, N7.

    Menus at Tufnell Park Tavern, N7.

    I like the richness in diversity of Tufnell Park. There’s the Tufnell Park Tavern which has the buggy brigade in the morning and in the evening it’s full of people back from work, and with dogs and children. It’s like a home with a bar. Nearby is Budgens  (3 Campdale Road) which has wonderful staff and there’s a newsagent that is a real survivor. Just over the border in St George’s Avenue there’s the ice cream shop (Ruby Violet, 118 Fortess Road) with unusual flavours. I’ve even tried Christmas Pudding ice cream!

  • Exmouth market – unfortunately the bookshop Clerkenwell Tales shut down about a year ago. But there’s Bagman & Robin (47 Exmouth Market) with bags designed by Marco who I met at the gym. He uses wonderful materials but they’re not too expensive.
  • 20150929_095238

    Gorilla sells perfumes. You can sit in the window display to experience how a scent makes you feel.

    I buy presents for various people in Camden Passage mostly at the perfume shops, Penhaligons (112 Islington High Street) and Gorilla Perfumes (3 Camden Passage).

  • I also like to lunch at the Austrian café, Kipferl (20 Camden Passage). It’s a good place to meet old friends.
  • Another nice area is Bunhill Fields with Cherry Tree Walk and the open air food stalls at White Cross Street which I discovered after a training session at Shelter.
Olav Ernstzen at an Islington Healthwatch meeting which makes use of more than 60 volunteers. (c) Islington Healthwatch

Olav Ernstzen at a Healthwatch Islington meeting which makes use of more than 60 volunteers. (c) Kate Elliott

Sipping tea – with the occasional Twitter interruption from Middle Temple saying whether or not the al fresco bar would open that day, BBC London travel and a friend in remission from pancreatic cancer (who is already working again) – Olav provides a whirlwind of information about Healthwatch, which was set up to find out what the community thinks about the health care services we use in Islington.

Tasks for the more than 60 volunteers and Healthwatch Islington’s five staff include mystery shopping*(where volunteers pretend to be a patient and report back) as well as ‘enter and view’ trips at centres supported by pubic money, such as GPs, pharmacies, care homes, residential homes and hospitals.

Facts to fascinate
“The theatre is about telling stories. At the Bar if you are doing a criminal trial you are representing a client. You have to understand the facts then stitch it into a story to tell the jury. They need to follow your client’s account in a way that is comprehensive. You can’t lie, or mislead. You have to be clear,” Olav says. “At Healthwatch* we have absolute clarity – legislative constraints – so when doing mystery shopping or an enter and view we are telling the story of what we did, how we did it, what we find and what we recommend.”

Ready for an enter & view mission at Highbury New Park. (c) Islington Healthwatch

Ready for an enter & view mission at Highbury New Park with (far right) Olav Ernstzen. (c) Healthwatch Islington

“We have really good teams of volunteers,” adds Olav. “We prepare in advance what questions to ask the health centres and care homes, and think about why we are asking those questions. Then we make a report, which is the story of what we saw and heard. To be genuine our recommendations must hang off the visit. To improve the quality of the service to the community everyone must trust what we’ve done.

Tips for trustees & directors
Olav Ernstzen, chair of Islington Healthwatch feels that being a barrister, “helps keep me sharp. You are dealing with bright people in health and social care so you have to keep up, and if you disagree they need to take it seriously. But as a chair or trustee you need to have a strategic grip.” Priorities should be to:

  1. Set policy and strategic goals

  2. Ensure resources are there

  3. Keep out of the way while staff do it! Let them get on with their job.


Healthwatch is not a campaigning organisation. However it would like to see GPs using interpreting services more widely. “You can pick up the phone and get an interpreter, and it’s free – so there’s no downside,” says Olav. He senses that I’m puzzled and then asks me, “Can you imagine the embarrassment for family members who have to interpret at the doctor if you are a mum and your 10-year-old son has to translate?” I’m soon laughing at the horror of that situation – for both mum and son, and of course many doctors’ surgeries are only open during school hours, which isn’t good for children’s learning either.

A second issue Healthwatch is exploring is how mental health services for young adults need to be developed.

The combination of Olav’s good sense, and skilled chairing has been one reason Islington Healthwatch has been so successful, but mindful that he’s already done one term as chair for LINk (Healthwatch’s predecessor) and one as chair for Healthwatch Olav points out that, “your legacy is finding people to take over, not the organisation collapsing because you leave. That’s why succession planning is a huge part of good management, which all voluntary organisations – and businesses –need to consider.”

You can see Olav in action chairing at the Islington Healthwatch annual meeting on 20 October 2015 – newcomers and volunteers are always welcome.

Looking to the future, Olav hopes that more people will help to build on the success of Healthwatch by joining the volunteering teams, and by giving feedback about their own experiences of health and social care in Islington.

  • Healthwatch Islington’s annual meeting is on Tuesday 20 October from 4-7pm at London Metropolitan Tower Building, 166-220 Holloway Road, N7. Anyone can attend, but please send an email RSVP to info@healthwatchislington.co.uk.
  • Olav is also a member of the Bar Council Disability Group, and sits on advisory groups with both Transport for London (TfL) and the Department for Transport where he helps advise how services should improve to meet the needs of the community. He also chairs the Camden & Islington Low Vision Services Group, and the Mobility Forum, for the Central London Region, on behalf of TfL.

Olav became chair of Healthwatch Islington when it launched in 2013. He had been chair of its predecessor organisation Islington Local Involvement Network (LINk) since 2009. Olav explained that of the “33 local authorities in London Islington was one of only three where the incumbent LINk was asked to carry on, and only one of a few in the country. This was wonderful, but quite scary – like an opening night at the theatre.

Mystery shoppers visit GP practices (or any other health or care service) pretending to be a patient who needs to book an appointment, or get information (on how to make a complaint,for example). They can then make a judgement on the customer service they received, and the quality of information provided. Unlike ‘enter and view’ the volunteers don’t reveal that they are members of Healthwatch.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook or join the Facebook group. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right) or follow me on twitter @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola


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