Making sense of consensus meetings

  • 24 November 2020

Dr Christin Hoffmann is a Senior Research Associate in Health Services Research at the University of Bristol and a member of the NIHR Bristol Biomedical Research Centre’s Surgical Innovation theme.

Consensus meetings bring together different people, such as healthcare professionals, academics and patients, to discuss and agree on a topic of mutual interest. They make research outputs more robust because they incorporate and reflect a wide range of opinions. The aim is to find common ground on which all participants agree.

In the Surgical Innovation theme, we use consensus meetings as a way to decide which aspects of surgical innovation are most important to measure to best evaluate novel surgery and medical devices. Outcomes from these meetings will influence how studies are designed and will feed through to what is then recommended in clinical practice.

Consensus meetings rely on lively discussions and vocal participants who can make their opinions heard. But we know this format favours some participants more than others.

As a patient or a member of the public, it can be intimidating being amongst a larger group of professionals – including consultant surgeons, industry and government representatives, academics, people who design or run research trials, journal editors – all of whom are more familiar with the topic and research methods. The voice of patients is hugely valuable but we know that they often don’t feel sufficiently confident to raise questions, concerns or disagree with professionals, particularly if they think that their understanding of the topic is limited.

Because consensus meetings are such an important part of the research we do, we want to make sure they work for everyone involved, so we set up a series of feedback sessions just for our patient contributors. The aim was to explore how we can support patient contributors attending consensus meetings to help them feel empowered to speak up.

What we did

In October we organised three feedback sessions online, each attended by up to four patient contributors. We invited people whose experience of consensus meetings was limited, and those who last attended a Bristol BRC consensus meeting in February.

Sarah Squire, Research Associate at University of Oxford, and PPI member of  the Association of Coloproctology of GB and Ireland, Patient Liaison Group, said:

“It was great to be a part of one of the feedback sessions as this will really make a difference for PPI attendees in the future. I attended a consensus meeting organised by the Bristol BRC Surgical Innovation research team and felt it was very well run, but that perhaps a few minor tweaks could improve the format from the patient perspective. I’m so pleased to see how much input the team wants from patients. There are some great people out there ready to give their views and perhaps come to the projects from a slightly different perspective to medics and researchers.” 

Our questions were structured to guide discussion around what can be done to help patient contributors before, during and after a consensus meeting. We also focused on general themes around what could improve the experience for patient and public members attending consensus meetings.

Most of our contributors’ feedback focussed on what they needed to prepare for the meeting. Here are some examples:

“When attending consensus meetings we need to be clear about the purpose, structure and aims of the meeting”

“It would be nice to meet other public contributors before the meeting and built up familiarity with each other”

“Not enough lay language summaries exist to explain the research and results in simple and understandable ways. There is too much jargon!”

What next?

Based on this feedback, we will be making some changes before our next round of consensus meetings to ensure our public contributors get the best out of the experience.

For example, we will run an ‘introduction to consensus meetings’ session, explaining the terminology, our research and the aims of the Surgical Innovation theme. We will follow up with a comprehensive Q&A session to leave plenty of time for queries and discussion to ensure everyone understands the topic. After this introductory session, there will be time for public contributors to chat without the researchers, so they can become more comfortable with each other.

Closer to the consensus meeting itself, we will run a topic-specific workshop to prepare our public contributors. The aim is to present specific research results, run through potential discussion points and provide opportunities to answer any questions about the topic and the consensus meeting format.

Our public contributors will receive an information pack before the consensus meeting, reviewed by fellow public contributors. It will include a lay summary of previous research and the topic to be discussed, an agenda, purpose of the meeting, info about attendees, and signposting to background reading.

For our website, we are drawing up some FAQs and making a short video about what to expect in a consensus meeting. We are also developing a surgery-specific jargon buster. This will be a live document which will evolve continuously with input from public contributors and will be shared alongside relevant study materials.

Find out more

We want to help our public contributors to make sense of consensus meetings, to increase the value of their contribution and to enhance the research we do.

If you would like to find out more, please contact Noreen Hopewell-Kelly, Research Fellow PPI lead, at