What I wish I knew when I was a new Consumer Rep

Becoming a Consumer Rep is a powerful way to share your experiences and knowledge and affect decision making at the highest level. The Consumers Health Forum has helped place hundreds of consumer representatives on government and other advisory boards, committees and panels; ensuring the consumer perspective is heard, considered, and part of the decision-making process.

Starting out as a new rep however can be very daunting. To help people begin their journey, we asked some of our current reps what they wish they knew when they first started out.

Sit next to the chair for the first few meetings

Put yourself in the middle of the action. This way, you can’t be ignored or stuck off to the side - other members in the group will address you far more often. The biggest advantage though is that it lets you ask questions quietly of the Chair while you’re still gaining confidence.

Being the new kid can be very daunting, but it’s much better to be swimming in the deep end than waiting on the side of the pool. Jump in!

Unashamedly network

It can take some time before you feel like you belong. The key is to remember that a lot of people want you to be there, and they want you to do well. The first person you want to get to know is the Chair. Introduce yourself, your experience, and ask about theirs as well. They will likely introduce you to the rest of the group, and being comfortable with the person at the head of the table makes your job much easier and more comfortable. After that, at any event swap contact details with at least one person, be it another health consumer, a health professional, or government policy person. Aim for genuine connection; have a chat, get to know them and most importantly explain your interests in the health sphere and ask about theirs. The key is to be genuine.

Over time, you will become known to a network of people who will know you as the health consumer who is interested in digital health, or adolescent mental health for example. If you can, build a LinkedIn profile and keep adding the people you meet. This all makes the health world a smaller place for you, and means that when someone you’ve met needs some input on that area of interest they’re likely to reach out to you directly for it - and you’re able to do the same with them.

Your perspective is unique

Everyone is a health consumer. For health consumers who are also health professionals, their experience is changed. They are treated differently in the system and have different knowledge than the standard health consumer. This colours the way they look at and approach health situations. A Consumer Rep is an expert in her or his  own experience, and in knowing what it feels like to be outside the health system, not knowing how or where to enter it most effectively. This perspective is welcomed at these meetings as it leads to policy and services that are better for people in the end; even when it challenges the status quo.

Ask the simple questions

Don’t be daunted by the fact you don’t have as much technical expertise as other members of the group. Coming from the consumer perspective lets you ask questions and seek clarifications that often the technical experts want to ask for, but don’t out of fear of their technical skills being questioned. Very often, after doing so you will be thanked privately by one of the technical experts who are grateful for your questions. An attitude of being keen and happy to learn goes a very, very long way. Another big advantage of asking for complex topics to be explained simply is that it gives an answer that’s easier to understand for all the health consumers out there.

Be yourself and speak up

You deserve to be heard. Listen well and do your best to empathise and understand the positions of others; but your role isn’t always to be a mediator or compromiser. Your role is to represent health consumers, theirs is to represent whoever they’re representing. When you have something relevant to say, say it; even if it contradicts what others in the room are saying. There is power in the health consumer voice, and your experiences and perspectives can help open other members of the group’s eyes to a different reality to the one they’re used to. It may feel like a small contribution, but can lead to huge changes for the better.

 

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Special thanks for Melissa Cadzow, Geraldine Robertson, Lyn Whiteway and Janelle Morrissey for their help developing these ideas.

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