Hearing From All Canadians On Digital Health Solutions:

Using A Suite of Consultation Tools To Reach Diverse Participants


Environics Research designed and executed a suite of consultation activities to help a health-focused non-profit engage more than 50,000 participants nationwide, including individuals and communities often overlooked in public consultations.

Environics Research really understood our desire to hear from different population segments across the country about the future of health care. They tailored their approach by designing a consultation for our specific needs with engagement activities that made sure we didn’t miss the viewpoints of any groups. On top of that, when the pandemic hit, their team came up with an agile method of seamlessly capturing COVID-related changes to attitudes and perceptions.

Shelagh Maloney – Executive Vice President, Engagement and Marketing

The Challenge

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed everything from conferences to kindergarten online, Canada Health Infoway was working with partners to improve the health of Canadians by accelerating the development, adoption and effective use of digital health solutions, such as health-focused apps and virtual care platforms. To support adoption and acceptance, Infoway needed a greater understanding of how Canadians viewed these digital tools, and how the public expected governments and healthcare providers to approach them.

As a non-profit organization funded by the Government of Canada, Infoway’s work has to take into account the needs of all Canadians, including those who may be difficult to reach due to geography, infrastructure, language or other factors. They turned to Environics for help with designing and executing a consultation program that would be representative and inclusive, reaching stakeholders and communities that conventional methods often miss. As experienced public consultation experts, we understand the barriers that can prevent different stakeholders from participating in consultation activities – and we know that more than one tool is often required to ensure broad and meaningful participation.

The Solution

To help Infoway reach its ambitious goal of carrying out the largest ever digital healthcare consultation in Canada, we designed a suite of consultations that, taken together, would deliver a comprehensive understanding of public attitudes on digital health.

Our multi-channel approach included online and telephone surveys, virtual focus groups and a web-based engagement hub. To build participation, we used digital marketing techniques, and worked alongside agency partners to brand the campaign (A Healthy Dialogue) and draw traffic to the online hub using social media posts and targeted digital ad buys. Ultimately, these approaches combined to create the largest public digital health consultation in history. 

But while the digital and telephone elements of the consultation attracted robust participation and a great diversity of participants, such broad consultation activities often aren’t sufficient to reach marginalized and underserved populations. So, Environics also carried out in-community consultations with Indigenous groups; and conducted interviews with marginalized Canadians, including new immigrants, Canadians with mental health conditions and those with precarious housing.

This targeted, in-person work was vital not only because these groups are often under-represented in social research, but because the very barriers that can keep people out of online and telephone research samples – for example, having an unstable housing situation – can also lead to unique health needs, and prevent reliable access to health services. This reality made it even more important for Infoway to hear from these Canadians. 

Barriers to meaningful participation in online and telephone research are not only technological – they can also be cultural. Some Indigenous communities have a strong preference for exchanging information in person. Members of some marginalized groups may also be more comfortable sharing their perspectives on health and healthcare face to face, which may encourage them to share more information about their experiences and needs. In response, we developed tailored approaches for groups that favour in-person engagement, including partnering with community agencies to meet clients in person, in familiar spaces. We also developed tailored approaches for difficult to reach Indigenous communities, such as engaging with and deploying Indigenous moderators.

The Result

Through 2019 and 2020, A Healthy Dialogue was able to reach and engage with more than 50,000 Canadians through surveys, focus groups, interviews and online interactions. This work provided an expansive view of Canadians’ needs and experiences; and their sense of the potential for digital channels to support timely, convenient and high-quality healthcare.


COVID-19 hit just as our originally planned consultation and analysis work was wrapping up. The pandemic drove a dramatic shift in access to healthcare professionals and facilities, with many Canadians staying away from clinics and hospitals to avoid the virus. At the same time, many organizations in healthcare and other sectors were accelerating their rollout of digital tools in day-to-day operations. Given this new context, we recommended undertaking a second round of consultation using a return-to-sample approach: following up with people we’d spoken to before COVID-19 hit. Our goal was to observe and quantify any changes in behaviours and attitudes toward digital health tools that had arisen during the pandemic.

Although the second consultation wave was not as comprehensive as the first – since public health guidelines put our in-person approaches out of reach – Infoway emerged from the two consultation phases with important insights to share with federal, provincial and territorial government stakeholders. Results from phase two, in particular, highlighted Canadians’ openness to virtual care and their willingness to engage with providers through these channels. Indeed, during the pandemic, some consultation participants had experienced convenient, accessible healthcare through digital tools first-hand, for the first time – persuading them of their value and potential.

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