Asking patients to help pick paint colors or lobby furniture is one way for hospitals to foster engagement. But the true "next frontier" will be giving health care consumers a seat at the table to improve quality and patient safety.

That's one of the key takeaways from a new report released last week by the American Hospital Association's Health Research & Educational Trust. Titled "Partnering to Improve Quality and Patient Safety," the guide offers hospitals and health systems a clear framework to cross over into that new frontier and work more closely with patients and their families to move the quality needle.

Some clinicians might feel a little uneasy about including patients in what can, at times, be touchy work, whether responding to a wrong-site surgery incident or addressing sagging quality scores. That's why it's important to educate docs, nurses and other hospital leaders in how to do this work, and build a framework to make it easy to do again and again, says Natalie Erb, a program manager with HRET and co-author of the report.

"There’s a lot of fear and apprehension about bringing people who are not hospital employees into these pretty sensitive conversations, and certainly that's warranted in many cases. But I think that fear is compounded by not having the tools or know-how to do these things," she says.

Making this process a little easier to digest, the trust offers hospitals five steps to kick-start efforts toward engaging patients as advisers:

  1. Recruit: Identify patients and their family members with knowledge of the area in which you’re aiming to improve.
  2. Prepare: Educate and train patient advisers in how they can contribute to the hospital’s quality improvement efforts.
  3. Create: Foster a culture of engagement in the organization, explain the patient adviser's role in the project and encourage staff to ask questions, and share their feedback.
  4. Implement: Roll out the quality improvement initiatives that you've designed, making sure to measure their impact on quality, safety and outcomes.
  5. Sustain: Ensure that the hospital doesn't slide backward after the project by maintaining open channels of communication, updating advisers on progress and sharing opportunities on future projects in which they might participate.

That last step, Erb says, can prove critical, as hospitals must ensure that they’re continually embracing a culture of patient engagement, and not just doing so to tick off a box on a checklist. Tapping patients and family advisers to improve the nitty-gritty quality and patient safety stuff won’t be easy in most cases, but it will prove rewarding in many.

"A lot of hospitals right now are working with patient advisers on projects that are seemingly more, I don't want to say trivial, because they're important, like paint colors to create an atmosphere that’s welcoming, dietary options or things that are a little bit more on the experience side," she says. "Whereas, the quality and safety stuff is a bit meatier. It's moving beyond those almost artificial conversations with patients to really involve them with the work that is more difficult, but has a much greater impact on outcomes."

For more on this topic, check out our feature from last year on how hospitals are taking a cue from retail industries that have, for years, been involving their consumers in a strategic fashion to develop new products. Hospitals all over the country are doing everything from placing patients and their family members on advisory councils to creating patient-activated, rapid-response teams to allow customers themselves to address thorny issues.