Lizzie Flemming’s introduction to the world of medicine began on a Brazilian hillside when she was a little girl.
“My mother was a nurse living in the country for while. When we lived up in the farms in Brazil, people used to come when they wanted an injection,” Lizzie said.
“Some of the field workers would come and knock at the door because the pharmacy and hospital were kilometres away. She was more like a nurse practitioner.
“I grew up with this idea that health is a very important thing because we could see the effect that it had on people.”
Lizzie said her early exposure to her mother’s career was helpful when her own family experienced health challenges, and later when she became a Consumer Representative at Eastern Health, because she already knew the ropes.
“My mother was working in a hospital, so I grew up inside a hospital and I was very familiar with the environment,” she said.
“I lived all over the world – USA, France, Germany, UK. While I was living in the UK with my husband, I became very sick and was hospitalised.
“After we moved to Australia, my daughter was a bit sick. I was able to understand what was going on because there is a similar background to the health system in Australia and the UK.”
Sinking, not swimming
Despite her relatively sophisticated understanding of the health system, Lizzie said becoming a consumer representative threw her in the deep end.
“I had no idea – 50% of the time everything went straight over my head,” she said.
“They started talking data and trends etcetera, and even though I did a psychology degree and understand metrics I didn’t know what was going on. I thought, ‘How does all this affect the average consumer? What’s my role here?’”
She said the turning point came when she was sent by her health care system to undertake a training course at Health Issues Centre.
“They sent me to a course at Health Issues Centre in 2014 and that opened a window in understanding what these people at the table are saying,” Lizzie said.
“For the first time I understood what they wanted. The most important thing I learned was although I come from the community I am not ‘the community’. You are not representing any particular part of the community. You are representing the man on the street without singling out any special group.
“Coming to HIC enables anybody with a basic understanding of English, gives them the tools to understand what your role is. If I had not come to Health Issues Centre, I would not have done what I have done. I wouldn’t have understood.”
We’re on the same team
Partnership is key to the success of the consumer relationship with health services in Lizzie’s eyes.
“You have a role and the role is not to tell the health service how to do their job or where their job is wrong,” she said.
“My role is as a partner. In a partnership, my role is to give a view of how it’s going to affect consumers. You don’t sit in judgment. If you have a problem. We’ll solve it together.”
An unexpected benefit of her involvement in committees has been a sense of connection to the community and her adopted home of Australia.
“When I started doing this was when I really felt like I am an Australian citizen,” Lizzie said.
“I made connections and got to know people. Health Issues Centre is a great place to make connections, exchange ideas and make friends.”