The notion of engaging patients in discussion about the ways in which they would like to see healthcare services provided has been increasingly discussed in hospitals since the early 1990s in Ontario. While the two main approaches used were mail surveys and in-person focus groups, these two techniques tend to be costly, difficult to manage on an ongoing basis and particularly in the case of surveys, the data is quite old.

When this discussion arose in the mid 2000 at University Health Network (UHN), the Patient Relations Department at UHN suggested that a standing focus group be developed, made up of patients who had already demonstrated an interest in the hospital. This interest had been expressed either in a complaint or a compliment which had been directed to the patient relations department by email.

Patient Relations argued that an email communication strategy would take advantage of the increasingly popular technology of emails and would give the hospital patient input in an inexpensive and timely manner.  This technology would also allow patients to give input from the comfort of their own homes and computers at their leisure and at a time of their choosing.

Putting the Plan into Place.

In 2006/2007 the creation of this standing focus group was put into place. Simply put, anyone who had sent an email to the Patient Relations department (compliment or complaint) was asked by email whether they were interested in becoming a member of this advisory group. The goal of the group was to offer patient input, advice and feedback on any program, project or strategy being developed or changed at UHN. Those internal stakeholders who were proposing internal changes would seek input and feedback from the focus group and it was hoped that this input / feedback would impact planned changes and developments.

The Actual Process.

Simply put, internal stakeholders develop a survey that questions and solicits patient opinion on a proposed change. The survey is sent out to the Virtual Patient Focus Group (VPFG) and all answers are collated and analyzed and are provided back to the internal stakeholders as well as to the entire VPFG under the heading “we asked and you told us”. Members of the VPFG are free to answer any survey that they are interested in; similarly they are free to not answer a survey on a topic that they are not interested in.

The continued involvement of patients/ family members in the VPFG indicates that the membership is satisfied with the role that they play. From the internal stakeholders’ perspective, getting the patient’s voice has never been so easy and clients/ family members have been very generous with their feedback and advice!

Examples of survey purpose and outcomes include:

  • changes in discharge planning
  • development of pamphlets
  • identification of key initiatives in 2014 at UHN
  • patient/family handwashing strategy developed and implemented
  • gathered feedback on patient’s experiences with service at PMH and incorporated within future quality improvement projects
  • assistance/feedback required in the development of the Patient Declaration of Values

The feedback from patients/ family members has been tremendously helpful in telling healthcare providers “what the patient really wants and thinks about a particular idea”. VPFG has increased engagement of clients and family members in the initiatives, projects, and activities of the hospital; and the acquisition of client and family advice or recommendations about existing processes. This feedback has led to positive, patient centered changes that are welcomed and valued.

Within UHN, internal stakeholders have become sensitized to the need to engage clients and family members and the need to ‘solicit client feedback’. Efforts to ‘enhance client engagement’ have become well established throughout the healthcare sector generally and here at UHN specifically. Clearly the VPFG has created its own ‘buzz’ and it continues to grow and remain a vital strategy at UHN.

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