Imagine This

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Get to know Alberta’s IMAGINE Citizens initiative, a group of Albertans working together to give patients a voice in their own health care

Judy Birdsell. Photo courtesy Judy Birdsell.

Judy Birdsell. Photo courtesy Judy Birdsell.

The IMAGINE Citizens initiative officially launched in 2015, but, according to Judy Birdsell, chair of the initiative, “We didn’t actually know it was a launch when we did it.” Birdsell says it started as a conversation among 10 Calgary and area residents who felt let-down or misinformed by the health-care system and who wanted to talk about what needed to be done to improve the future of health care in the province.

What is IMAGINE Citizens?

As a citizen-led initiative, IMAGINE is working to bring Albertans’ voices together to improve the current health-care system.

IMAGINE was formalized as a provincial society in October 2018 in order to help establish its independence and raise money for its work. It is comprised almost entirely of volunteers, including a board of eight people, 40 core members who lead projects and a community of about 600 others across the province. IMAGINE’s operations committee meets once a month to coordinate its projects.  

Often working with the University of Calgary’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health, IMAGINE aspires to use evidence from research, input from Albertans and information about how the health system works to inform its activities. For example, IMAGINE embarked on a project with funding from Alberta Health in which it worked with a diverse group of Albertans over several months to make recommendations related to some key policy directions related to primary health care. Birdsell says the resulting report’s recommendation of having more consistency between how patients and others discuss primary care has influenced the way key groups like Alberta Health now talk about primary health care.

 “Our primary purpose is to help Albertans learn and become effective voices in shaping the future of health care. We have the deep belief that citizens need an independent voice in health care because there’s no organized way for patients and citizens to have a voice,” Birdsell says. “This work will lead to better health and experiences for all of us, regardless if we have cancer, diabetes or dementia.”

Health Care 101

In 2017, IMAGINE helped launch a project called Health Care 101, where it reached out to 200 Albertans to ask what could help them be better informed on health care. One area that was important to Albertans was understanding who was in the system and their roles. Birdsell was shocked that a majority of Albertans were unable to explain the difference between the ministry of Alberta Health and the health authority of Alberta Health Services. IMAGINE, working with several partners, used the information it gathered to create Health Care Basics for Albertans, an informative module available on its website. There are three more modules currently under development. 

Looking forward

By fusing citizen needs deeper into current conversations, IMAGINE is bringing the patient and citizen perspective to policies, health-care conferences, meetings and research projects. By having a seat at the table, IMAGINE volunteers (including patients and affected family members) are able to advocate for improvements in the health system.

Sharing knowledge with Albertans is always ongoing for the volunteer-run group, but the next steps involve learning from the stories they hear and advocating together for a change in policy to reflect the needs they hear about. By sharing knowledge through online platforms such as the Health Care 101 initiative, or by meeting with government officials, such as Alberta Health, IMAGINE is working to both empower the voices of patients and advocate for that voice among policy-makers.

How to get involved

Birdsell says IMAGINE doesn’t “look or feel like many organizations,” when people want to get involved. When someone is interested in helping the cause, IMAGINE works to find the best fit for them.

“We don’t have a list of job descriptions yet,” she says. “We’re still very organic in how we do things.” [ ]

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