Overview for Reps

Consumer representation

Consumer representatives bring an essential perspective to decision-making.  They help ensure that the healthcare experiences of everyday Australians are taken into consideration. They remind decision-makers of the values that are important to our communities and they help find alternative ways to handle problems.

What is a ‘consumer representative’?

A consumer representative is a committee member who voices a consumer perspective and takes part in the decision making process on behalf of consumers (patients, carers and their families). This person should have strong links to consumer networks and is usually nominated by a consumer organisation. This helps ensure that they can draw on broader views and experience when contributing to a committee; not just their own views.  Consumer representatives often contribute to hospital advisory committees, consumer reference groups for health services, industry and research committees as well as state and national health policy committees.

The consumer representative plays an important role in any committee. Consumers bring an essential and unique perspective and can contribute to better decision-making by providing a balance to the views of healthcare professionals, policy makers and business managers.

Research from around the world indicates that positive health outcomes result when consumers are involved in decision-making. Consumer representation can provide an important link to the community, their involvement promotes consumer confidence in the decisions and can lead to more robust decisions and smoother implementation because consumer views have been taken into consideration.

The role of a consumer representative involves:

  • protecting the interests of consumers
  • presenting how consumers may feel and think about certain issues
  • conveying the consumer experience
  • ensuring the committee recognises consumer concerns
  • reporting the activities of the committee to consumers
  • ensuring accountability to consumers
  • flagging the need for the committee to undertake consumer consultation where necessary eg. with marginalised groups.

A committee should not expect the consumer representative to:

  • have a technical background in the subject under discussion. The consumer representative provides consumer perspectives on an issue. Most consumers are not technical experts in medicine or research but have legitimate interests in it.
  • undertake consumer consultations beyond what is required to inform their own input at the meeting or to ensure their own accountability to their consumer network. If wider consumer consultation is required, the consumer representative can advise the committee on how this might be achieved but should not undertake the work themselves.
  • speak formally for an organisation, or on behalf of all consumers. The consumer representative provides a consumer perspective, but usually does not formally represent an organisation.  Of course no single consumer can represent the views of all consumers.

But isn’t everyone a consumer?

Consumer representatives often hear other committee members say that they are also a consumer and can act as a consumer representative. Everyone is a consumer, but not every committee member can represent consumers. Other committee members such as service providers, researchers or professionals are usually placed on the committee to represent those perspectives. They cannot possibly do this and represent consumers at the same time. Only those people whose primary experience is as a consumer can represent a consumer perspective because their judgment is not clouded by another perspective.

How do I become a consumer representative?

You need to decide:

  • which areas of health interest you most
  • what motivates you to become involved in these matters
  • if you want to work on issues relevant to many consumers such as privacy or focus on services, for example, for people with a particular condition

Once you have made your decision, join a consumer group involved in those areas. A list of consumer and community groups that may interest you are listed on our ‘Finder’.

You will gain experience in representing consumer interests at the local level by being involved in a consumer network. Consumer groups are often approached to nominate consumer representatives in areas related to their work, so ask your consumer group how best to stay in touch with these opportunities.

The Consumers Health Forum of Australia also alerts consumer groups within its networks about consumer representative opportunities.