Patient partners: A missing ingredient at conferences?

ACT Center patient partner, Starette Canada, discusses the importance of patient partners at research events

August 28, 2023

Patient partners: A missing ingredient at conferences?


Starette Canada (front right) enjoys lunch with Claire Allen, MPH, Jess Mogk, MPH, and Kelsey Stefanik-Guizlo, MPH (l-r) during AcademyHealth's Annual Research Meeting.

Starette Canada, a patient partner, shares her experience attending a recent academic conference and highlights gaps that remain in patient engagement

The Center for Accelerating Care Transformation (ACT Center) patient partners work alongside our staff as equals, sharing their perspectives and experiences to design and tailor better solutions to improve health care. At research conferences and meetings, staff members have ample opportunities to share knowledge with other conference attendees, but do patient partners have the same opportunities?  

We recently talked with ACT Center patient partner, Starette Canada, about how patients can be elevated in research and at research meetings, and why it’s important. Starette is a Kaiser Permanente Washington member living with persistent pain, who first heard about the ACT Center through KP Washington’s Living Well program. Now, Starette is a dedicated member of the Integrated Pain Management (IPM) program team, which is co-designed and led by a team of ACT Center researchers and staff from Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute alongside four KP Washington patient partners. The IPM team works to improve quality of life, functioning, and well-being of people with persistent pain by providing safe alternatives to opioids. In addition to her work with the ACT Center, Starette serves on Kaiser Permanente’s National Women's Health BIPOC Advisory Council and National Cancer Advisory Board, as well as Kaiser Permanente Washington’s Senior Caucus, Patient Advisory Group, and many others.  

Starette and ACT Center team members Claire Allen, MPH, and Kelsey Stefanik-Guizlo, MPH, sat down to talk about their experiences at AcademyHealth’s Annual Research Meeting (ARM) in June, and how patient partners deserve a platform to share about their engagement with research projects. Claire and Kelsey were excited to bring Starette to her first academic conference. Jess Mogk, MPH, an ACT Center team member, also attended with them. 

Giving patient partners a platform 

Throughout the 4-day conference, Starette and ACT Center members attended many presentations and were disappointed to find limited examples of substantive patient engagement in research. Some presentations talked about engaging with patients and AcademyHealth offered a scholarship program for patients who wanted to attend the conference, but there were no presentations from patient partners or any meaningful ways for them to engage with the presentations or with each other.  

“Patients are a key part of research! Some of the presentations made it feel like data is the only crucial part of research, and not those who provide the reason for research: the patients. I wish we’d seen patient partners speak or host a breakout session where patient partners give feedback on research taking place,” said Starette. “If patient partners were given a platform, researchers would be able to see that we help them see the real-life impact of their work.”  

Kelsey explained that it's not commonplace to see patient partner engagement at academic research conferences and that giving patient partners a platform to share their experiences would bring many benefits. “Having Starette with us made me take a step back and ask myself why we are doing the research we are doing – for me, the answer is we do this work to improve care for people,” said Kelsey. “We have such a wonderful opportunity to hear from patients who can help us make improvements to care. I hope we can get to a point where patient partners come to these conferences and see their place in research valued and have the option to talk about their work.”  

If given the chance to partner with planners and presenters at research conferences, Starette said she would make sure patient partners had the same opportunities as researchers to share their knowledge and expertise.  

Research must be more accessible  

Research conferences are often academic, but is academia preventing patient partners from seeing their place among the researchers? While some presentations discussed patient partners, Starette, Kelsey and Claire felt that most left a gap on how to share patient partner work and Starette said they missed the most important aspect – being human.  

“Some of the presentations felt like they were in Klingon and that made it hard for me to digest what they were saying,” Starette said, explaining that she doesn’t speak the academic language, “There were times when I had questions or wanted to make a comment, but feared the spectacle of getting up with a cane and painfully walking to the microphone. Gratefully, Claire, Kelsey, and Jess relayed any questions I had and were also able to explain things to me.”  

Starette believes patient partners have a place at conferences like ARM, and that having patient partners involved in planning may be the first step in making non-academics feel more welcome in those settings. 

At past research meetings, Claire has focused on the research, but having Starette with her provided a fresh perspective on basic accessibility. 

“Starette uses a cane, and we hit roadblock after roadblock with accessibility,” said Claire. “We had to search everywhere for elevators and there was no seating for meals. Of course, Starette handled it with grace, as I’m sure these are common experiences for her, but it opened my eyes. Those moments helped me critically examine the meeting from her perspective and brought a human and personal touch to such an academic event.” 

Teamwork makes the dream work 

At the end of the conference, Starette, Claire, and Kelsey all agree they discovered so much from their shared experience of attending ARM together. Together, they attended presentations, networked, and shared meals - as well as a fit of giggles in the revolving door.  At the center of it, they strengthened their bond, an essential component of good teamwork.  

“I felt so much love from Claire, Kelsey, and Jess. The IPM team is as real to me as my home. Spending time with people who welcome me, talk to me and listen to me is lovely,” said Starette. “This experience filled me with so much love and togetherness.”  

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