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Conducting research with (not on) consumers in health – exploring ethical considerations

 


Authors: Joan Carlini,1 Kristen Ranse,2 Noela Baglot,3 and Laurie Grealish2

1. Griffith Business School, Griffith University, Southport campus, Queensland. Email: J.Carlini@Griffith.edu.au.
2. Menzies Health Institute Queensland and School of Nursing & Midwifery, Griffith University and Nursing & Midwifery Education and Research Unit, Gold Coast Health.
3. Health service consumer.

Growing healthcare demands and limited resources raises concerns about the sustainability of practical benefits resulting from research. The Consumers’ Health Forum of Australia and the National Health and Medical Research Council have developed a Statement on Consumer and Community Involvement in Health and Medical Health Research to better align the health and medical research with community need and improve research impact.  However, the traditional research-to-practice pathway can result in findings that are not “implementable”, which has led to the active recruitment of consumers’ views in co-design of interventions.  Consumers are now recognised as valuable knowledge resource to improve the relevance and translation of research into practice.

Co-design with consumers and community organisations

Co-design is the practice of consumers and suppliers, such as researchers and clinicians, coming together to look at a problem and design a solution together.  Consumer engagement in healthcare is considered critical to safe and high quality services. While health service consumers, often labelled as patients or clients, are the subject of research in order to better understand health and illness, engaging consumers in the conduct of research is emerging as an important area for consideration in health service research.

In healthcare, co-design can strengthen the relations between the community and academia, and ensure the relevancy of the research question and intervention. Despite the benefits of using co-design, there are also unique challenges that can become apparent. The co-creation process involves collaboration between researchers and consumers from the outset, making pre-specification of interventions unlikely.

End of life project background

In our project, researchers partnered with clinicians and consumers in the development of an intervention to support people near end of life to achieve a death at home. Consumers were involved in developing the intervention, which consisted of (1) a brochure outlining key considerations to achieve a death at home and (2) the process of discharge home near end of life. Consumers were members of two design groups, one for each part of the intervention and others attended a workshop to review the brochure and process. Please see our earlier article for more information.

Unlike participatory action research, in co-design consumers are focused on the intervention rather than the research process itself. Consumers contributed to the quality of the information that people might need when considering a death at home, including the processes that facilitated the transition home.

Method of engagement

In the co-design process, researchers modified established research techniques, such as nominal group technique, to distil those features of the discharge process and brochure that were considered most important. The group negotiated importance and inclusion of various elements in the drafting process. In these discussions, the importance of some elements were not equally valued by consumers, clinicians and researchers leading to rich and robust debate. The groups met over five meetings and through these meetings developed rapport that enabled frank discussion and the ability to work towards consensus that was consumer-led.

Ethical principles applied

The importance of engaging with consumers as partners in research must be carefully considered in the design and conduct of research to ensure that ethical principles are upheld. In considering how consumer engagement can support the research project’s fulfilment of ethical principles, including those in the National Statement, we consider the following:

Voluntary

The consumers involved in the project were invited to attend based on their history as a health consumer and interest in end of life care.  Their engagement in the project was voluntary, and they had the freedom to participate at a level of their choosing (i.e., attend meetings, community forum, out of session meetings).

Nonmaleficence

The researchers took care to ensure that the wellbeing of the consumers was maintained. One consumer’s recent lived experience with the topic meant that the researcher would informally check-in on the welfare of the consumer and gather feedback on the process, participation, and interactions of the previous meeting.

Beneficence

The group Chairs carried responsibility to support the group to establish a shared vision about the value of keeping the person who is dying at the centre of care. The complexities of how beneficence can be achieved, and possible barriers, emerged during meeting discussions and this information was used to support the implementation plan. For example, as the discussions progressed, the value of a formal family meeting and the need for general practitioner and transition nursing support was considered essential to enact patient and family well-being.

Consumers were included as committee members and accepted as part of the group, with all group members, who were representing a range of stakeholders with an interest in discharge home near end of life, invited to contribute their views at each meeting. All stakeholders were valued as being integral to the solution. In this project, consumers were considered as experts, understanding what happens outside of hospital and in the community, and directing the researchers to focus on family limitations as well as strengths. Because the group members were focused on the same, shared goal early in their work together, the process provided respect for families who decide to die at home, as well as those who may need to return to hospital.

Fidelity

Minutes were taken at each meeting, with action items discussed at the beginning of each meeting. Member were accountable for actions that they had agreed to undertake, with outcomes discussed at the meeting. The finalised draft of the two documents, the information brochure and discharge process, were circulated to the consumers, as members of the respective design groups, for comment. The consumers’ commented on how pleased they were to see the tangible outcome.  In another example, when one researcher (JC) was preparing this article, she spoke with one of the consumers about her experience with the co-design approach of the project.  Later, when the researcher provided a hard copy of the draft article to the consumer, she responded happily that her view “was well developed & expressed clearly”.

Respect

Respect for consumers who would be using the intervention was considered important during the groups’ deliberations. For example, consumer members of the information committee, tasked to design a brochure to support patients and families, were invited to review readily available resources about dying at home available in Queensland and other Australian jurisdictions. Through this activity, they were able to identify the information and conversations that would be most important in the local context. They also contributed to the language used in the brochure, supporting the use of example questions to focus health professionals on what was important to the consumer, making the planning process more personalised.

Justice

In relation to justice, this intervention and associated project provides guidance on the appropriate clinical and non-clinical people and resources that can enhance a person and family’s experience of dying at home. In the Gold Coast community, this project provides a vehicle for people living with chronic, life limiting diseases to imagine an end of life experience that is not in the hospital. Within the brochure, information about the financial, social and personal challenges of caring for a person at home is explored, ensuring that people have awareness of those challenges and can plan for them.

Safety

All members of the co-design teams should be well supported in a safe environment. A structured timeline indicating the milestones were developed in advance, thus setting a framework for meeting agendas.  This structure allowed participants to feel secure in knowing the process, approaches and activities that would be covered.  Both of the Design Group chairs were experienced researchers and knowledgeable about the process of co-design. As Chairs, they ensured that the conduct of all members were respectful, hence creating a safe and supportive atmosphere.

The future of consumer engagement in research

Based on our experiences, consumers as experts on health services added value to the outputs of the design process. In this study, there were specific value assumptions associated with consumer engagement in the intervention design process, including:

  • Clear expectations of consumer contribution, the anticipated project outcomes, and some knowledge or experience of the issue under investigation enhances contribution;
  • Consumers require formal training in consumer advocacy and require the time, understanding and passion to sustain their commitment; and
  • Engagement is enhanced by effective communication in regard to formal agendas, written minutes and ongoing personal communication.

Image source: Gold Coast Hospital Health Service, Achieving end of life care at home, A guide for patients and their family carers (2019)

In our case, consumers with experience of end of life care, as either a family member or a paid carer, were able to make a sound contribution that enhanced discussions and the final product. Other stakeholders including clinicians from the hospital, community health service providers and researchers expressed learning from the insights provided by the consumers.

In this project, consumer engagement through co-design was limited to developing the intervention. Consumer contribution has been found to enhance scientific and ethical standards, provide legitimacy and authority, and increases project credibility. Our experience resonates with these findings.

As consumer advocacy training becomes more sophisticated, there are clear opportunities to involve consumers more actively as members of research governance groups and in some cases, research teams. Consumers bring an experiential perspective, often grounded in local context that can be particularly helpful in translational or implementation research, an emerging research discipline in Australia. We invite other researchers, consumers and clinicians to contribute to this constructive conversation about the value of involving consumers in research co-design, with a view to satisfying the national quality standard in health care, focused on Partnering with Consumers. Not only can the quality of research improve, but consumer engagement can assist with focusing on matters of importance to the local community, increase public confidence in research through openness and transparency, and increasing local community understanding of research.

Acknowledgement

This project was supported by a Queensland Health Clinical Excellence Division, Care at End of Life SEED funding grant (2018). Project team members include Grealish, L., Cross, A., Sharma, S., Carlini, J., Ranse, K., Hiremagalur, B., & Broadbent, A..

This post may be cited as:
Carlini, J., Ranse, K., Baglot, N. and Grealish, L. (26 February 2019) Conducting research with (not on) consumers in health – exploring ethical considerations. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/conducting-research-with-not-on-consumers-in-health-exploring-ethical-considerations

 



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