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Dr Tracey McDonald AM PhD FACN, Professor of Ageing, 2014

Patient-centred care is the model of choice for patient–clinician interactions. We recognise that engaging patients as shared decision makers in their own health care can improve the patient and clinician experience, and improve the quality of care.

But what about engaging consumers in the process of running a health care service?

Value of consumer involvement in health care

Involving health care consumers allows health care services to understand the needs of the community they serve, and to provide more responsive service to better meet these needs. After all, if we’re providing services for the community, shouldn’t we find out what the community needs?

Patients are on the receiving end of health care, so they can provide feedback from a different perspective to clinicians or health care managers. This can help to improve service integration to provide better health care experiences for both patients and clinicians.

Consumers who are engaged in their community’s health services may be more likely to understand how and when to access different services. This can contribute to more efficient and effective service use. Engagement can help health care consumers build skills and knowledge in a range of areas, as well as build trust in health services and the health care system.

Training for health care consumer engagement

It’s not always easy or intuitive to engage with health care consumers. Health care organisations are used to working within hierarchies of power. Executives usually do the decision-making. Organisations may see themselves as being forced to relinquish some power by engaging with consumers. Consumers, too, need to be able to represent their community, not just their own opinions. They need to develop skills in advocacy and influence. They must also grapple with background reading and processes that may be unfamiliar to them.

Many organisations have developed toolkits, strategies and discussion papers to provide frameworks and practical tools for both organisations and consumers to participate in consumer engagement, including:

Individual vs organisational levels of consumer engagement

The benefits of consumer involvement on the individual level are many (see, for example, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care’s (ACQSHC’s) publication on patient-centred care [PDF])

Less is known about the advantages and disadvantages of engaging consumers at the organisational level. It could bring similar benefits, including developing a shared understanding, mutual respect, shared decision-making and responsive services, but we don’t yet know.

As with other movements that bring fundamental change, health care organisations may be wary of the process. Some common arguments against consumer engagement at the organisational level include:

  • It would be a waste of time to involve someone who does not understand the process or the subject matter.
  • Clinicians work with the community every day, and they know what the community needs.
  • Clinicians themselves are also members of the community, so could contribute just as well as a non-industry health care consumer.
  • The personal experience of one consumer representative on a board or committee is unlikely to add value to the decision-making process.

Last updated 18/11/2019
Copyright © 2019 - 2023 Dr Tracey McDonald