Consumer engagement. There are a couple of buzz words if I’ve ever heard them.

Today, I am attending the Health Issues Centre Forum, ‘Listening to the Consumer Voice: what does healthy dialogue look like in 2015?‘ I was the opening presenter where I spoke about the role of the consumer in healthcRe.

My position is clear – consumers have a place at every conversation taking place about healthcare. Whether it be at a governance, strategic or operational level, the voice of the consumer should be the loudest and proudest in the room.

All too often, this representation is tokenistic. It is an all-too-simple ‘tick-the-box’ requirement of health services. And it’s the same in the broader health community.

Most of what I have heard today I have heard before. This discussion has been going on for a long time, and as one of the speakers said ‘Why are we even having this conversation anymore?‘ And he is right. Why do we need to be defending the right of the consumer voice? Why is it not a given?

My talk was followed by palliative care physician, A/Professor Natasha Michael who gave a fabulous talk about the challenges faced by clinicians for finding the balance between ‘benevolent paternalism’ and patient autonomy.

Her analogy was simple – if she contracts an electrician to do some work for her, the last thing she wants is the electrician to stand in her house and ask ‘Where would you like me to put the green wire? And the red one? And the blue one?‘ They are the expert – that’s why she called them.

At face value, that sounds reasonable. But actually, I don’t think I really am comfortable with it because it completely minimises the expertise I have gathered in the 17 years I have lived with diabetes.

When I expect to engage in a dialogue with my HCP it is not discrediting their expertise; it is acknowledging that I have something to bring to the table.

At a higher level, consumer involvement can emote difficult. How are consumers included in strategic decisions, on boards and at a governance level? And how does that work?

Possibly my favourite take-home message from today came from Damian Ferrie who is the CEO of Inner South Community Health. Damian said that measuring if consumers are participating in a meaningful way is quite easy: ‘If consumers have no power to influence in your organisation, it’s tokenistic.’

I wish I could say that I am seeing more examples of consumers having power to influence,  but that isn’t the case. Our involvement is still tokenistic. It is largely unpaid which further reduces our worth.

And yet, health services and health organisations claim frequently that they are listening to the consumer voice, that consumers are critically important, that consumers are the basis of their work.

By and large, I think it is lip service, with primarily examples of organisations talking the talk, but not walking the walk. And that is why we are still having these conversations. We need to be. I wish we didn’t. But we do.