While the crisis sparked worldwide interest in public health among the public, they were not always included in the decision-making process of health mesures. Today, many health researchers, in hospitals, research centres and community organizations, want to shift from the passive role of citizens (being recruited to participate in a study), to the active engagement of the public in the research process (being involved in its planning, implementation and evaluation). 

What is public engagement in research?

Have you ever interacted with a healthcare professional who did not fully understand the realities of your day-to-day life? Have you ever participated in a study where the questions were not relevant to you? Have you ever felt misrepresented by a project or intervention?

Public engagement occurs when citizens "meaningfully and actively collaborate in the governance, prioritization, and conduct of research, and in the synthesis, distribution, sharing, and translation of the resulting knowledge."

Centre for Excellence on Partnership with Patients and the Public (CEPPP)

In other words, public engagement is the inclusion of citizens in the research process and considers their knowledge as valuable throughout the project. Their participation may be needed at different stages of the project. In fact, they may act as consultants, collaborators or even partners.

Here are 5 reasons why you should include public engagement in health research

1) Public engagement builds a sense of community

Engaging with the public is an opportunity to strengthen relationships with the groups and communities your research wishes to serve. Public engagement can also improve participants' trust in researchers and increase their sense of belonging to your study.  

2) Public engagement can highlight blind spots

Public engagement celebrates and values the unique knowledge that each person brings, in the same way we value academic knowledge, to improve the study. The public's knowledge can be very health-specific, such as having health problems, having received treatment, or living with risk factors. It can also be more general, such as living in a certain region, being a parent, or being a racialized person. By engaging with your public, you recognize that each individual is an expert on his or her own health, illness, and social situation. It can even make you aware of knowledge and experiences that you may not share with your audience. Most importantly, this allows you to identify blind spots in your project - and adjust accordingly.

3) Public engagement increases the relevance and usefulness of your research

Making science and research more accessible to the public can remove some of the barriers between researchers and the public. Actively involving citizens throughout your research ensures that it is designed with the relevant groups in mind, and that its objectives are translated into appropriate actions. Ultimately, it can lead to better health care, and improved health and well-being. The ultimate goal is to develop projects and interventions that evolve with, for and by the population.  

4) Public engagement fosters capacity building

Public engagement processes allow those involved to develop new skills and abilities. Teams that include citizens in their projects provide them with the necessary tools and support to empower them. Plus, citizens who collaborate with research teams strengthen their self-confidence as well as skills such as leadership and public speaking.

5) Public engagement reinforces several public health values

Public health is based on several core values such as transparency, openness, autonomy and empowerment, collaboration and reciprocity. These values, central to health promotion, encourage processes that support health improvement and quality research. For example, by being transparent and collaborating - values that increase our trust in institutions - public engagement increases the relevance of research to improve health and well-being (linked to reason #3!).

Overall, including the public and their real-world knowledge is an opportunity to improve research and inform its processes. The COHESION study is currently developing public engagement activities. In December 2020, the team sent out its first survey to better understand participants' experiences. Stay tuned for more blogs on the results of this survey and upcoming public engagement activities!

Written by Alexie Kim and the COHESION Study Editorial Board

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