‘Peoplebank’: Creating a Common Language in Online Health Engagement

Instilling a flexible approach to health engagement, Peoplebank, the digital engagement hub of the Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network, responsive, community-focused care.

“My approach with Peoplebank was to embed it and make it a common language within the organization. So, it is the tool we use to get really good consultation,” Kevin Rigby, Marketing Engagement and Strategy Manager, Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network

For Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network (PHN), community engagement is crucial to nurturing an ecosystem of relationships. It is also essential to designing services that align with the needs of a large and varied community. Peoplebank, the region’s dedicated online engagement space, was rolled out in 2016 as a way to expand participation, capture local intelligence and insight. True to its name, it continues to grow as a place where community knowledge, experiences, and priorities enrich decision-making.

As a central hub facilitating vital relationships and conversations, however, Peoplebank has transcended its role as an efficient and accessible supplement for traditional face-to-face engagement to become a community-focused source of truth for a range of health-related issues. In addition to the wide and deep community-building capacities enabled by digital engagement, the hub supports the PHN, community, and stakeholders to illustrate, explore and respond to ongoing and emerging issues that affect this ecosystem of relationships.  

Enabling engagement

The Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network manages a broad set of relationships between health care users, primary health care providers, general practitioners, allied health care stakeholders, hospitals, pharmacies, and non-governmental organizations. It caters to a wide region with a diverse population distributed across metropolitan and semi-metropolitan areas, regional centres, rural areas, and remote areas. 

Established to address gaps in primary healthcare, the organization relies on collaboration to design services that speak to local and contextual needs around themes such as health literacy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, allied health, general practice, community health, mental health community initiatives, aged care, health education, and chronic disease. Local communities and health care consumers are central stakeholders in the PHN’s mission to facilitate improved outcomes. Especially when it comes to ensuring that services in these key priority areas are tailored to meet the needs of the communities they are to serve. To these ends, effective and meaningful online engagement bridges distances between a dispersed community, decision-makers, and resources for better needs assessment and co-designing of services.

Kevin Rigby, Marketing Engagement and Strategy Manager, Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network, illustrates the aims of the PHN board to increase participation within such a broad-reaching and diverse region:

One of the aims of the (PHN) board, because of the region and diversity of it, not only population-wise and geographic isolation-wise, was to look at how we could increase the level of engagement that we had in those communities. And how we could actually consult meaningfully to make a difference in finding out what needs there were, finding out what was actually happening on the ground, and then also working with all of those stakeholders to codesign services that would meet those needs.

In facilitating conversations that make a difference, and by being a go-to space for information, Peoplebank has also significantly enhanced the awareness of the PHN’s role in the region, suggests Rigby. The digital space has enabled a conversational approach, providing a constant and consistent means to help communities understand what the PHN does and why it matters. 

A constant community of participants

Peoplebank’s broad public consultations are open to participation with and without registration, so that the community may feel free to provide their input without being bound to a registration process. The hub takes this approach to broaden community input and ensure that registration does not become a barrier. But participants can choose to register, and the site has seen residual registration on a regular basis.

In recent times, Peoplebank has seen an organic 5% rise in registrations on a month-on-month basis, and now has over 820 registered participants, including participants from the typically hard-to-reach older demographics. Significantly, 35% of participants are from the 45-54 age group, while ages 55-65 make up 25% of the sum, and a heartening 9% belong to the 65+ demographic.    

Registrations have enabled a constant community of participants, who can be easily reached and notified when the Network is running a consultation that pertains to their interests or needs. They also provide a demographic picture of participants, so engagement planners can get an idea of who is listening and contributing input, and where they may be coming from. 

When it comes to closing the loop, a ready database of participants allows for a more proactive approach to relaying the impact and outcomes of participation to the community. Rigby maintains that articulating the impact of input is essential to building trust and keeping the community engaged. “A lot of the times we look at that as an afterthought. I would really put that front and center when you are designing an online project.”, Rigby advises. “It is very easy to say that’s right, it’s done, let’s move on to the next stage. But it is important that (the community) are informed about how they have made a difference.”

On one hand, Peoplebank’s open funnel approach gives the community a place to provide information to decision-makers, where they can express their concerns or narrate their experiences that may not fall within the scope of ongoing consultations. However, the registered database of participants helps engagement planners reach out to the relevant demographic or sub-community when there is a specific theme to be discussed.

Private, targeted, or closed group consultations can necessarily require registration, and this is where the registration process allows the Network to deepen or target consultation at specific stakeholders and objectives. For instance, when it comes to subject matter experts, sensitive issues, or engaging with clinical councils or community and consumer advisory committees, the Network can create closed groups and specific hubs for smaller, more specific, and deeper conversations.

Similarly, although council groups may meet offline for a limited number of times in a year, they can be reached, outside of these meetings, for their input through closed groups on the site. This enables regular communication through a single platform where input can be captured instantly to inform decisions on new services and issues.

doctor using computer

Creating a common language 

Peoplebank serves as a central platform for both internal and external stakeholders, producing and supporting a mutual space for exchanging and capturing information, and a unifying communications hub. “My approach with Peoplebank was to embed it and make it that common language within the organization. So, it is the tool we use to get really good consultation,” says Rigby. By streamlining engagement, the site offers a self-contained space where resources can be deployed efficiently, where the progress of projects can be tracked and illustrated, and engagement can close the loop.

Enabling internal communities, Peoplebank connects stakeholders to interact beyond meetings and seek expert guidance whenever necessary. Having created a variety of centralized portfolios around commissioning, general practice, integration, and marketing and engagement, help is at hand for the many moving parts of the Network. For instance, when it comes to designing targeted projects or making content on the site accessible to specific communities, the hub enables collaboration with relevant stakeholders such as NGOs working with those specific communities, the public health teams working in the relevant sub-domains, or community partners who work closely with the target populations.     

Peoplebank’s versatility in this regard owes itself to a flexible, responsive approach to engagement at the PHN, enabled by EngagementHQ’s suite of tools and capabilities. Rigby reveals:

We are not locked in to just one way of gaining local information and intelligence. Our level of intelligence can go from a small pulse check to large scale assessments and co-designed projects. Having the flexibility to be able to do that is a real benefit to us. And getting the actual tangible data to support that for future use is beneficial…Registrations and various parameters give us a snapshot should we need to mobilise information quickly. We have those participants and information on hand. 

This ability to work across domains with momentum, in addition to the deep connections forged with community, has generated significant traction for Peoplebank, and participants have come back for more.

Responsive engagement for responsive care 

Speaking to community needs around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Peoplebank has been essential to producing a digital response. In addition to taking a quick pulse check to see how the community is faring in the crisis, the site addressed a variety of practical and informational needs. It aided the rollout of telehealth services, supporting functionality, and helping evaluate telehealth capabilities. It also functioned as a central point of information for business continuity resources. 

Peoplebank has also enabled the tracking of patterns across stakeholder issues. When it came to mask distribution streamlining, for instance, the site could capture requests for masks, and function as a single point of contact for mask distribution. This kind of tracking provided a view of peak days, peak areas, and process information. Similarly, the platform supported virtual training modules and videos in the aged care sector, bringing various stakeholders together to collate local intelligence and generate an understanding of what was required and how to best achieve it. 

In these ways, Peoplebank has provided a digital reprieve for communities seeking answers in challenging times, in some cases even doubling the broad range of participation. But while it supplements face-to-face engagement and brings new capabilities to consultation, the secret to the hub’s effectiveness may be its mirroring of offline engagement to create human connections. During the recent drought and bushfire crises, for instance, the hub became a place for inquiries, information, and resources for communities in distress, but also a place where decision-makers and stakeholders were actively listening and adapting their crisis responses to address emerging gaps.

Reiterating the essential human component of health care remains a priority for Peoplebank, and a crucial mission for health care in general. For a sector that has long dealt in a top-down engagement model, re-humanizing healthcare through patient-led engagement, transforming broken systems through patient leadership, and enabling a cultural shift are not far from reach.     

Tune in to learn how Peoplebank fosters connections and capacities for responsive healthcare.

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