When you are ready for consumers to actively partner with you, there are some key steps to follow to bring them on board effectively. This will help mitigate risk, ensure safety and lead to success.
Providing a thorough orientation for your new consumer partners will ensure they understand their role and feel welcome, safe and supported. The orientation should cover the following:
Explain the buildings, rooms, entry and exit requirements, visitor tags, sign-in sheets, map of grounds, parking advice, amenities, etc.
Support setting up software and/or platforms for virtual meetings, and how to use it.
Outline the purpose and goal of the engagement activity. This helps to set the tone and gives people a clear picture of why they are there; what is expected of them; and what will be covered.
Introduce the team; committee members; facilitator/s; and staff who will be present and involved in the work.
In your first meeting with consumers, allow time for introductions to members and orientation to the group. Speak about commitment to the partnership, including everyone’s goals.
Identify what training and development is needed
Training and development can be as simple as ensuring your consumer partners understand the goal and purpose of the engagement activity they will be involved in. This would cover background information and context to enable meaningful contribution to occur.
Things to consider:
- Use recruitment and periodic partnership reviews to have discussions about the types of training the consumer would find useful.
- The higher the level of consumer engagement and partnership, the more training may be appropriate. For example, co-design and collaboration lend themselves to training in areas such as leadership and communication; chairing committees and meeting etiquette; speaking up and conflict resolution.
- Professional development also comes through mentorship and supervision from experienced consumers.
- Some organisations offer specific training for consumer participants, such as Health Consumers NSW and the Consumers Health Forum of Australia.
Doing consumer partnership well is everyone’s business. To build staff understanding, knowledge and ability to partner well with consumers is likely to involve some education for them too. It is also great modelling! Many consumer organisations like Health Consumers NSW and the Consumers Health Forum of Australia have resources and education tools for health staff as well as clinicians.
The partnership experience may trigger a bad or difficult memory or emotional response for a consumer. As such, access to support is key for any successful consumer partnerships.
Below are some ideas for providing support:
- Use a secondary facilitator or support person who can debrief with participants throughout the session (or afterwards, is required).
- Follow-up participants shortly after a session.
- Seek a minimum of two consumers who feel belonging and have a been connected.
- Ensure access to a ‘mentor’ to debrief and provide context and content knowledge where there are gaps. Help to interpret health jargon and explain matters that are not clear.
- Consumers should be able to access an organisation’s Employee Assistance Program, if required.
Providing support to committee members
If you are seeking consumer participants for membership on a committee, you will find some additional hints and tips below:
The role of a consumer on a committee
The role of the consumer on a committee is to provide a consumer perspective on the issues being discussed and recommendations being made. They should be treated as a peer and receive all communication as per staff committee members.
A consumer on a committee is appointed as a ‘representative’. Sometimes they are expected to represent a group perspective (if they can) but more commonly, they bring views based on their experience of a service or illness.
Consumers on committees require ongoing support and resourcing in order to maximise their effectiveness. Communication is critical to keep them informed and prevent problems. Include processes, such as orientation, feedback, training and mentoring in your strategies to work with consumers.
The role of the mentor
Identifying a mentor enables the success of your consumer participation experience. The mentor is another committee member who agrees to be the partner’s primary point of contact throughout their participation.
The mentor should set aside time before and after meetings to prepare and debrief. They should be a safe person for the partner to raise concerns they are not comfortable raising at the table and the mentor is responsible for directing these concerns to the chairperson, if necessary.
The mentor should be available by phone and email between meetings to provide support; and they act as the conduit between consumer partner and the committee chair if issues of communication arise.
When things go wrong
The mentor is the first point of contact for the consumer partner to raise issues and concerns to the committee Chair. The Chair is responsible for addressing these issues in a timely and thoughtful manner. Prompt feedback should be provided to the partner.
If there are problems with the partner, then the Chair must deal with these in the same way; for example, use the terms of reference and code of conduct to support action.
The Chair should contact the consumer partner’s nominated next of kin if the partner does not respond to communication and/or is absent from consecutive meetings (without making apologies). This is to ensure the person is safe and well and that communication is not being sent inappropriately.