Two years ago, Kaiser Permanente Northern California developed a behavioral health patient advisory panel, and the insights that have emerged enable the organization to meet patients’ needs better.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work on revamping and improving our services, and we wanted to make sure we were listening to and hearing from people who are actually receiving the care,” says Stuart Buttlaire, M.D., regional director of inpatient psychiatry and continuing care at Kaiser's Northern California division.

The advisory group, which includes patients and family members, has provided input on such fundamental matters as whether educational materials describe group therapy in a way that patients understand and whether provider bios include the information patients need to make an educated choice.

When Northern Kaiser developed a new tool to measure progress among mental health and substance abuse patients, the advisory panel was asked not only whether it found the instrument useful, but also about how therapists delivered the information to patients. Advisory panel members said they liked the tool, but worried that some therapists didn’t understand its importance to patients.

Related: Closing the Behavioral Health Care Gap Through Collaboration

“We made sure to inform our clinicians by saying, ‘People are taking this very seriously. Please take the time to go over it, explain it well and share with people where they are in terms of their improvement,'” says Buttlaire, former chair of the American Hospital Association’s Section for Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Services.

Manning the advisory panel are three Kaiser representatives — two co-chairs and a point person who handles logistics and participants’ travel reimbursement and parking passes. The two-hour meetings take place once a month in Oakland.

The number of members varies but is typically eight or nine. Meetings start with chitchat over dinner. That half-hour is vital because after spending time together as people, “patients are more comfortable and more open,” says Buttlaire, one of the panel’s co-chairs.

Related: Coming Together to Integrate Behavioral, Primary Health Care

Participants are expected to follow the panel’s ground rules, which include keeping discussions confidential, listening without criticizing, understanding that meetings are not therapy and having the right to not talk about a subject.

Panel members are nominated by a health care provider, interviewed by one of the two panel co-chairs and onboarded the same as other hospital volunteers. Interviewers look for certain characteristics, including a willingness to share and to listen, an ability to use their personal experiences constructively, and a commitment to being respectful and attending meetings.

“People get very thoughtful about programs and systems and how things work together, so we spend a lot of time describing our system of care and integrated care," Buttlaire says. “They pick up on that and start having a systems view of things and can give us feedback — contextualizing their own experience within a system.”