Leading change through authentic engagement


Really, a patient should be writing this column, and not me.

As our new Niagara Health Engagement Network (NHEN) evolves, the next column you will likely read about patient and family engagement at our hospital organization will be written by one or more of our Patient Partners.

We have done a tremendous amount of work at Niagara Health to make our engagement network as authentic as possible for our patients and families and for our staff and physicians. We set out to create a network that would provide patients and family members with opportunities to share their time, experiences and perspectives in ways that would help us make meaningful improvements in quality, safety and the care experience.

I am proud to say that we are doing just that. Although it is still early days in the life of this important partnership, the feedback we are receiving from our Patient Partners is overwhelmingly positive. Some of them have not had positive experiences with Niagara Health, and they are using these experiences in productive ways to help improve care for others.

We are hugely indebted to all of our Patient Partners for their passion and willingness to contribute to a healthier Niagara. They are telling us that they are excited about the opportunity to partner alongside Niagara Health staff and witness firsthand changes that arise from their involvement. We are also grateful for the enthusiastic response of our leaders, who have warmly welcomed our Patient Partners to the Niagara Health team.

Being a learning organization, learning is embedded in our organizational culture. Our network takes that learning to a new level by embedding the voice of patients and families into all that we do – just as it should be. We believe that people who are impacted by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

Founding members of the NHEN are helping to co-create the model for the new network. There are a few unique features about this network that I would like to share with you.

Most significant is the rostered approach we are using to continuously seek a variety of perspectives from Patient Partners whose interests and experiences align with the initiatives at hand. I envision having 100 or more Patient Partners on the roster at any given time. The more patients, loved ones and community members participating, the better. We look forward to welcoming people from various backgrounds and experiences to diversify the network and accurately represent the needs of the community we serve.

As we begin this work, Patient Partners are being invited to come alongside Niagara Health staff on committees, working groups, special projects, and other types of initiatives. Patient Partners have the opportunity to choose when, how, what and where they want to donate their time. They can participate in as many or as few opportunities as they would like depending on their interests, the amount of time they can dedicate and what is required for the project. We are finding that some have an interest in specific areas, like improving patient experience in the Emergency Department, while others are interested in reviewing policies and procedures through the lens of a patient.

Depending on the project, Patient Partners can participate in person, online or virtually using technology. Regular communication will keep all of our Patient Partners connected, and we will share partnership opportunities in advance to give them the time to reflect on their potential participation in the initiatives. We will help match them with initiatives that fit within their timelines, schedules and interest.

A fulsome onboarding strategy will set up our Patient Partners for success. Dedicated Patient Partnership staff guide our partners through the process and connect them with the Niagara Health staff lead of the initiative in which they will be participating. Members of our team also receive training on how to effectively partner with members of the community. We have prepared a resource guide to assist our staff with choosing the appropriate level of engagement (consistent with the IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum) to ensure they engage early on in a process initiative and bring full value to the partnership.

We are excited about the opportunities to genuinely partner with our patients and families in meaningful ways that create lasting impacts on future patients and families. It is fast becoming our way of doing things here at Niagara Health.

The user sometimes has the answer that the provider doesn’t always see. We are listening, and look forward to hearing more about the endless possibilities that authentic engagement will reveal as we continue on our journey to a healthier Niagara.

Dr. Suzanne Johnston is President of Niagara Health, a regional healthcare provider with multiple sites and a growing network of services in community settings. As a community-based academic centre, teaching and learning, research, innovation and partnership are propelling us as we imagine a healthier Niagara.




  1. I certainly read this article with a renewed sense of commitment from regional health care providers in recognizing the positive impact that comes from learning from those impacted by the services provided to the community/region. It speaks to me of a more progressive approach to problem-solving, without judgement or perceived inadequacy, to listen to concerns of patients/families or hear of positive feedback only and ignore anything negative, to improve healthcare for all – providers and receivers.
    If only all health care provider agencies understood the benefits of listening to their “stakeholders” in reality than just in written format, there could be huge benefits for all.

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