Is public involvement in UK health research a danger to itself?

The story of Concorde – the supersonic airliner that graced our skies for thirty years – was once a totemic example of the UK’s inability to turn great innovation into commercial success.

Lots of factors were said to cause its undoing. Concerns over its environmental impact. US protectionism. But it was its lack of commercial viability that prevented it dominating the skies. Fact is that it went into service with a high price tag just at the time millions of us were beginning to enjoy cheap air travel.

I worry that the British model of public involvement and engagement in health care is following the same flight path as Concorde.

Two recent trips to Toronto, Canada, a delegation of Swedish dentists, conversations with European neuroscientists and an event at a European meeting of periodontologists have all focused my mind. Our
international colleagues are learning, adapting, adopting and improving on the UK’s approach. The question is: are we learning from our own mistakes, are we slipping into a ‘British is Best’ complacency as the world passes us by.

Nowhere was this brought home to me more than in Toronto. Our Canadian colleagues are wonderfully flattering about what the UK has achieved in public involvement. But I also sense some things that may give them the edge over us during the next decade. Chief amongst them are:

– They understand the power of consumerism and are ready to embrace it in ways we are too prudish to contemplate. They will use it to drive change in their health care systems.

– They have the scale, enthusiasm and open-mindedness to overcome barriers. People may regard it as sickening positivity. But it seems a better starting point for change. Here we shoot ideas down too quickly by listing all the barriers in its way.

– They have a more grown-up attitude to data. Both professionals and patients. Meanwhile we sulk in our respective rooms like teenagers. I think we probably have 5 years to sort out a new social contract on data in the UK. If we don’t do it in that time then we will be in danger of seriously undermining the quality of health care people can expect from their NHS.

– They are less obsessed with ‘self’ in public involvement and care more about community engagement. 90% of our time and effort (and possibly money) in public involvement here is consumed by an obsession with getting people on committees, groups etc. All good stuff. But essentially inward looking. What if we devoted only 50% to this in future and the rest to reaching out to our communities.

– They see developing their partnership with the public as a potential competitive advantage in research. We don’t. Again, we are reluctant to think in those terms.

No one is more proud of what we have achieved in public involvement in the UK than I. But we must change our mindset if we do not want to become just another part of our heritage. Glorious, worthy of a blue plaque perhaps, but essentially grounded and no longer airworthy.

2 thoughts on “Is public involvement in UK health research a danger to itself?

  1. Simon

    I’m currently on holiday in upper NYstate near Toronto, but totally agree with this post. Would love to have more info from Toronto if you can share? I’m keen to move away from being on boards to getting communities involved in health especially new models of care. Need to get them involved and skilled up more! More when I get back, Best wishes Nicola

    >

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