Alberta Health Services (AHS) is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services to the more than 4.6 million adults and children living in Alberta. AHS works to engage with internal and external audiences on healthcare issues to achieve its vision: Healthy Albertans. Healthy Communities. Together.
Together4Health (T4H), an online engagement platform launched in 2018, complements and enhances AHS’ community and stakeholder engagement activities by providing an accessible tool for Albertans to participate in and provide feedback on local and provincial projects and initiatives.
“Providing opportunities for input on topics that matter to Albertans makes them partners in the delivery, planning, and evaluation of their healthcare,” said Nicole Merrifield, Director, Community Engagement & External Relations, at AHS. “The geographic size, population disbursement, and cultural diversity of Alberta creates challenges for meaningful in-person engagement. T4H gives us an incredible opportunity to reach more people than we could ever hope to connect with in person.”
Harpreet Matharu, a Senior Advisor with the AHS Engagement & External Relations team, directly supports T4H. She provides expert advice to teams who wish to engage with staff or public, coordinating training and education on the use of T4H.
“Not only is T4H creating space for more Albertans to reach into the organization, it’s making it possible for more teams across AHS to seek input when they otherwise wouldn’t have the time or resources to do so in a comprehensive way,” said Matharu.
The global COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges when it came to connecting AHS with their populations to share vital information, and to learn what audiences need to know and understand about the healthcare system response.
“We had a lot of people who had questions, we had people all across the province with different needs, and we also had restrictions on how we could get together,” recalled Merrifield. “One of the things we wanted to accomplish with Together4Health was to create a place where people could come ask their questions, leave their thoughts, and get information – especially when everything was changing very, very quickly.”
During the first 16 months of the COVID response (March 2020 through July 2021), AHS hosted
321 virtual sessions; 16,000+ Albertans attended a virtual Community Conversation, Focus Group, Psychological First Aid training or other presentation. This growth in engagement was reflected on T4H, which engaged 41,100 unique individuals – for comparison, the previous year saw 13,800 individual visitors to T4H.
A dedicated T4H page invited Albertans to join the conversation about COVID-19; the page received more than 102,700 visits from 84,000 individuals. Albertans asked 748 questions of AHS experts, and 59,500 individuals responded to surveys that helped guide how AHS communicated with Albertans during the pandemic.
AHS also saw a need to provide a space for the critical conversations around Indigenous healthcare issues and to reach Indigenous communities, as well as AHS staff, to support engagement during National Indigenous Peoples’ Month each June, and Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (held annually on September 30, since 2022).
First celebrated in 1996, National Indigenous Peoples Day was established to recognize and celebrate the cultures and contributions of Indigenous peoples across Canada.
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is commemorated on September 30. It serves as a day to remember students and survivors of Canada’s residential school system; government-sponsored schools established in the early 1830s to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. The last residential school closed in 1996. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of Canada’s reconciliation process.
Engaging with Indigenous peoples and communities comes with its own unique challenges.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had calls to action for healthcare, specifically about making sure that that we were employing Indigenous workforce, and that we would be providing safe spaces,” explains Carolyn Paradis, a Senior Advisor with the AHS Engagement & External Relations team who supports the two major celebrations. “That’s why [National Indigenous Peoples Month and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation] are so important. Because engaged healthcare workers are key to providing appropriate and culturally safe care.”
When the one-to-one community engagement that can help bridge, those gaps became more difficult due to COVID, the AHS Engagement team turned to Together4Health.
“We had teams who had information they wanted to share with communities,” said Matharu. “But we also wanted to discuss what we could learn from those communities. We couldn’t just do it in person so we had to lean into T4H; to learn more about the platform, and how we could use it in different ways.”