Over the last few years in the field of health and research and with regard to participation and involvement of citizens and patients, we have witnessed the transition from a paternalist to a partnership model. Individual citizens and those citizens involved in patients’ associations or groups have acquired a new role: no longer passive but actively involved in decision-making regarding health, healthcare, and research in the health field [8, 9].
This is a progressive step-by-step process based on the recognition and implementation of the key concepts such as health literacy and empowerment. Health literacy, more properly used at individual level is defined as the capacity to obtain, read, understand, and use healthcare information in order to make appropriate health decisions and follow instructions for treatment . Empowerment, more used at the community level, is a process that, starting from the acquisition of accurate knowledge and skills, enables groups to express their needs and more actively participate to request better assistance, care, and research. At this level, the availability of organized independent and evidence-based training courses is essential to allow people to be able to critically appraise and use information about the effects of healthcare interventions. Consequently, they will have the skills to participate in the multidisciplinary working groups (composed of researchers, health professionals, patient and citizen advocates, institutional representatives).
In the late 1990s, the Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri IRCCS held the first training courses of this kind focused at breast cancer associations. Some years later, within the project PartecipaSalute—a not-for-profit research project designed to foster a strategic alliance among healthcare professionals, patients, and their organizations—an ad hoc training programme for representatives of citizens’ and patients’ organizations was defined with a multimodule format [11, 12]. This was an innovative approach, at least in the Italian setting in that period.
PartecipaSalute training programme has combined different experiences: the Mario Negri Institute IRCCS experience in collaborative research activities with patients’ associations, the Italian Cochrane Centre with the activities aimed at promoting the principles of evidence-based medicine, and Zadig long-term experience in health communication. The above promoters jointly developed the PartecipaSalute training programme on the belief that data are more important than opinions, and that every decision should be supported by well-conducted research data.
The spread of this belief to patients and citizens with the purpose of stronger involvement was a key point of PartecipaSalute training courses.
Therefore, patient, family, and community knowledge of the principles of how evidence is developed through clinical research is essential to make or support decisions in the health debate, to promote better clinical research, or to convey correct information. The strength of the PartecipaSalute programme was based on the exchange of experiences in an interactive way aimed at creating opportunities for discussion, overcoming the teacher–learner model. Each session started with an interactive discussion of a real situation—such as a screening, vaccination, therapy—and after sharing data, opinions or articles from media, evidence was presented and discussed, underlining significant methodological aspects. The programme offered the opportunity to debate the value and significance of the methodology offering critical appraisal tools. Each participant was invited to take an active part, starting from direct personal or associative experience. Table 10.1 presents the topics considered in the first three editions of the training programme. The participation was free, and different types of materials were provided including an ad hoc manual published by PartecipaSalute, copies of the PowerPoint presentation and articles.
Considering the characteristics of the programme and its modular structure, the PartecipaSalute training programme could be adapted to specific contexts. In fact, the experience of PartecipaSalute was adopted at the regional level by Regione Toscana (Centre for Clinical Risk Management and Patient Safety and the Quality of healthcare and Clinical pathways of Health Department, Tuscany Region) developing a more specific training programme called PartecipaSalute-Accademia del Cittadino (Academy of Citizen), focused on patient safety and risk management. In particular, after some modules on methods related to evidence-based medicine, uncertainties in medicine and information and communication in health, the training was mainly dedicated to regional and local activities on clinical risk management, the role of patients’ associations to improve patient safety and to support the implementation of best practices, the analysis and data of adverse events and risk assessment in terms of quality and safety in the care processes (Table 10.2).
The PartecipaSalute-Accademia del Cittadino joint training programme has been implemented in three editions over the last decade and has trained about 100 members of patient and citizen advocates representing 38 patients’ associations. The courses ranged from 5 to 3 modules of 2 days each in residential mode to allow participants to get to know each other and create a network of associations committed to be engaged in clinical research, quality, and healthcare safety issues.
The entire educational experience was characterized by the use of participatory training methods, based on working groups, practical exercises, lectures from experts with opportunities for discussions. As a result of this training course model, the participants were recognized as “expert patients” and were regularly involved in basic activities for promoting patient safety as auditors on significant events and helping to define policies on patient safety at the Tuscany regional level. In addition, they have participated in patient safety walkarounds in hospitals and in developing eight cartoons intended to promote the education of citizens for the prevention of the most diffused risks (such as prevention of infections, prevention of falls and handovers).
Feedback on the satisfaction on tutors, topics discussed and knowledge gained was regularly requested from participants through questionnaires distributed before and after the programme. In general, positive feedback was received; participants appreciated the interactive methods of work, the clarity of the language, and the effort to make difficult problems easy to understand. An ad hoc questionnaire was provided to the participants regarding the methodology of clinical research, always showing an improvement in the self-evaluated knowledge before and after the course. Feedback of the results of the evaluation was also shared with each participant. Most of participants reported their experience to other members of the organization. In particular, in the case of the Regione Toscana training, the possibility of immediately transferring what was learned in the course in all the activities in collaboration with the health institutions, policy makers, and health professionals—such as working groups on patient safety best practices, participation to audits, development of tools to improve health literacy—was appreciated.
Some limitations emerged from these experiences. The selection of participants is the first issue, not only because the training course is accessible to a small number of participants (in general no more than 30 participants), but also because the groups comprised of middle-aged and retired participants, with few younger ones. Additionally, there were few individual patient or family member representatives from patient associations. The majority of those representing patient associations were in managerial or leadership positions. Furthermore, it is difficult to choose between small, local, or bigger regional associations. Residential training courses also restricted the participation for geographical reasons.
The PartecipaSalute and ParteciaSalute-Accademia del Cittadino training experiences show that patients and citizens are willing to get actively involved in healthcare and the research debate. There is a real desire to improve their knowledge and skills on health and research issues and allow some general considerations regarding the active engagement of citizens representing associations and advocacy groups.
In conclusion, it is very important to invest in a process of empowerment aimed to have well-trained activists involved vigorously and constructively in the debate, design, and assessment of health and research. Switching from tokenism to active participation is necessary to effectively partner with patients and the general population to design, plan, and co-produce safer more effective healthcare, while also supporting better more patient-centred research [13, 14].
Also, the training courses are feasible and useful, as has recently been discovered also by pharma or other groups that organize courses mainly focused on drugs and drug development, thus directing the participation of the groups more to market needs than to public health.
Furthermore, this training initiative facilitates the networking among associations in part overcoming the difficulties that derive from personalization and division among the associations representing citizens and patients.
Finally, this illustrates the importance of the design and promotion of training courses with institutions, such as the Regione Toscana, in order to be able to implement projects of real collaboration between institutions, healthcare professionals, and consumers’ and patients’ representatives.