Co-Design is about health professionals, consumers and carers working in partnership to achieve the best possible quality of life for individuals with complex needs and their families.
Community engagement is an important feature of a person-centred approach. Co-Design works most effectively when involvement in the communities and networks that surround an individual and their families is not just recognised but actively encouraged. Carers, consumers and health professionals all have a role to play in making this happen and there are many benefits that flow directly from making it work.
The network that may provide the greatest potential value to individuals with complex needs and their families is the specific community that shares a common interest and experience with them.
Those consumers and carers who have actively participated in a special-interest community have found that some of the most innovative ideas for dealing with day-to-day challenges have come not from their medical and health advisors but from other families. There are many instances where they will learn from other families – the experts, like them, in the experience of living with a specific condition – about different aspects of the condition (such as changing behaviours that come with age).
Another important characteristic of special-interest communities is that they can provide opportunities for individuals and their families to build relationships, sharing not only their struggles but celebrating the positive aspects of their lives. Typically health professionals and their clients focus on working together to solve problems or address issues of concern. A consumer support group or community can move beyond this and provide opportunities for families to interact in informal ways, to share stories, to encourage and support each other personally and emotionally in ways that are vital to their overall wellbeing.
Health professionals have a great deal to gain (in terms of their ability to deliver holistic whole-of-life health care strategies for their clients) in supporting both the development and ongoing sustainability of special-interest communities. They can contribute in supporting these communities by becoming active participants in the community, attending events and answering questions, and providing information in formats that suit the group. Opportunities to explore mutual learning and development become apparent when clients and carers have the freedom to speak comfortably and openly with health professionals.
Clients and carers and health professionals working in partnership have an important role to play in educating others. When they have the experience of working together to fully understand a condition and devise strategies for management, they are well placed to share their knowledge with others.
Medical conferences and seminars provide good opportunities for such insights to be shared. When consumers, carers and health professionals co-present on a particular issue, a powerful message is sent to wider networks of service providers- demonstrating the benefits and value of utilising Co-Design processes to ensure best practice health care.
Building capacity is an important function of Co-Design, to optimise the ability of community-based mainstream service providers to support those with complex health needs. This might mean specialist health practitioners working in partnership with schools, residential care facilities, professionals and others who are involved in providing care and support around a shared group of clients.
Raising awareness of the needs of carers and consumers within the community facilitates development of stronger support networks to improve the health and wellbeing of those with complex needs. An important aspect of Co-Design is ensuring that the support networks available to a family within their community are built into the service delivery plans developed around them.
On a broader scale, generating interest and breaking down barriers to understanding those with complex needs results in greater empathy between members of the community. Importantly, this can open up opportunities for participation in the wider community and an increased sense of inclusion.
Community groups and clubs are often looking for guest speakers and are keen to hear from carers or consumers who have an inspiring story to tell. Local media are often on the lookout for human-interest stories and can play a valuable role in promoting the different ways individuals and families can be supported to participate in their local community.
Local communities can also provide valuable tangible support to consumer support groups. Local media may be willing to promote group events, sometimes for free. Venues for events (such as fenced parks or halls with wheelchair accessible toilet facilities) may be willing to provide access at discounted rates or no charge. Community groups or clubs may also be able to provide funding through grants to pay for specific activities (e.g. special events, seminar days or travel assistance to enable a family to attend a conference).