Fresh eyes for change

Lockdown has been emotionally taxing for Jo Szczepanska, as she feels like the last chance to fight for a beloved cause is slipping through her fingers.

“Canada’s last ice shelf just fell into the ocean last week. That’s tipping point 9/9 for the climate system that is now active,” she says sadly; and you can see her watching the future of the planet darken in her mind’s eye.

Jo has nevertheless tried to maintain the spirits of her group of young activists and keep them engaged and hopeful. She’s also channelled her energies into changing what she can change and has seen a wave of pleasing evolution in her “day job” as Consumer Experience and Co-design Consultant at Dental Health Services Victoria.

Her fresh ideas show that in a global pandemic, there is opportunity to innovate and deliver positive change with a little lateral thinking.

Reaching young people online

“As activists we are having a crisis in lockdown. Who are we if we are not marching to stop traffic or chained to a building?” Jo said jokingly.

“At the moment with younger people we often just try to touch base. It’s obvious that just speaking to each other – “How are you doing?” – isn’t going to work.”

To keep her young people engaged and help manage their sense of isolation, Jo has taken to technology – but she’s gone beyond just jumping on a video call.

“We are together because we like drawing or making things. We would paint banners and create art. It’s easier to talk when you are doing something else,” she said.

“I have been talking while doing other things in the background, like playing computer games such as Pictionary, so it’s no so confronting as a Zoom call.”

Moving mountains

Jo said she’s managed her own sense of pent-up inactivity by channelling her energy into things she can move.

“At the Dental Hospital, things that were impossible before are now possible,” she said.

“Attitudes are shifting to being more accommodating and experimental. People are thinking, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? Let’s just give it a go’.”

Jo said one brilliant example was the way the hospital had shifted its approach to its Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC).

“Our CAC was always very much a governance position. The authority figures give updates but wouldn’t get input from consumers,” she said.

“For a while we weren’t able to run CAC meetings because of COVID, so instead of waiting to restart, we started running CAC as a working group.”

She said the move had transformed the group and the way it could add value to the hospital’s operations.

“We looked at emergency patient experience and telehealth. It helped our consumer advisors put in a lot of their vision for what a good approach is,” Jo said.

“We have been able to adjust our website and what the hospital looks like. We have been able to tap into the expertise and skills of our CAC members more and convinced people who were sitting on the fence of the value of consumer input.”

“It gives us a window to have consumers thinking further ahead. How do we make waitlists fair and equitable? Who should we see first when restrictions lighten? How can we do things differently?”

Jo said the process hadn’t been easy but the sudden shift in attitudes brought about by the pandemic had been a watershed moment.

“It’s still remarkably difficult – I’m not saying any of it came easily. But I think we might even be able to scale up,” she said.

“We’re scoping projects for how we build our network and recruit new consumer members. We want to combine online events with an educational focus with recruitment. The worst that can come of it would be that folks that come learn key oral health messages accidentally. The best case is they learn key oral health messages and join us in making things better!

“There’s just so much change happening.”

Jo is a member of Health Issues Centre’s Consumer Connect Facebook Group and has shared some of her innovative ideas during a Cuppa and Connect event with other members. To connect with Jo and find out more about how to participate in her oral health groups, click here.