This review identified many countries that strongly encourage the involvement of peers at strategic levels in policy and program decisions, including Canada, United Kingdom (UK), United States, and the Netherlands. While a large body of scientific evidence have reported positive outcomes from peer-run programs and interventions for PWUD, such as the reduction of risk behaviors and frequency of injecting [1, 19], less attention has been paid to peers and their involvement at more upstream levels in policy and program development.
PWUD are important stakeholders in the issues surrounding substance use and health, yet there is limited documentation on their collaborative efforts with policy makers and program planners. This review highlighted the challenges and obstacles that prevent peers from becoming more engaged in decision making processes. Barriers of stigma and discrimination may have made it more difficult for policy makers to appreciate the benefits of involving peers in policy decisions [11, 12]. In order to improve and develop practices around this issue, future efforts should first focus on actively reducing issues of social stigmatization. Free from barriers, peers can more effectively engage in policy and program development.
There have been minimal examples in the available literature of strongly identified peer groups advocating for the health and well being of their peers. In Canada, VANDU is well known for their dominant voice in the matters of policy agendas. Based on a social movement model, VANDU’s democratic grassroots approach is continuously challenging public policies, and shifting social attitudes and awareness towards PWUD. Recently, VANDU protesters were responsible for shutting down a street in Vancouver in a rally for stable housing opportunities . Another example of their involvement in the community includes their ongoing support of Insite, Vancouver’s first officially sanctioned supervised injection facility. Further, VANDU has succeeded in engaging peers in various practices by identifying and implementing interventions that are needed to reduce harms associated with drug use, including working with: the British Columbia (BC) harm reduction program to provide naloxone (Narcan©) to opioid users, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority for safer smoking education initiatives, and with the University of BC researchers for education and support meetings for people who drink illicit alcohol [29–31]. However, in other settings, peer groups have not played roles that represent the same level of involvement as VANDU. A major challenge that many peer groups face worldwide in running their organizations are the limited resources available and lack of funding from the government [23, 32]. Without adequate funding, peer groups remain unstable and are ineffective as advocators. Therefore, governments should increase their efforts in financially supporting peer groups as well as to encourage and assist the formation of new peer groups in various settings. Additionally, governments should develop a system where institutional boundaries do not limit the participation of this population (e.g. research writing skills to write a competitive grant proposal, requirement to be affiliated with a university).
In addition to grassroots activities, various governments globally have been making advancements in engaging with peers in policy formation and development. For example, the BC Ministry of Health developed a model called ‘Patients as Partners’ to highlight the importance of equal representation and collaboration between all stakeholders affected by the same issue . The BC harm reduction program in Canada follows these guiding principles by including PWUD from across BC in policy decisions and program changes in their efforts to improve the health of the population [34, 35]. Furthermore, in 2010, the BC Ministry of Health Services launched the ‘Healthy Minds, Health People’ initiative, which is a ten-year plan that calls for collective action between public and private sector stakeholders, as well as community partners to promote positive health in BC . In the UK, the Substance Misuse Service User Involvement Project commissioned by the Wandsworth Care Alliance facilitates the engagement of PWUD and alcohol in revising policy and delivery of treatment services to the population . Collectively, these efforts highlight the progress countries are making to acknowledge the valuable contribution that PWUD can make to policy.
There are several areas of policy and program development that without the insight of PWUD these issues may not have been identified and/or programs would not be effective . These include but may not be limited to: policies around supportive housing and supportive assistance, decriminalizing drug use, informing appropriate drug paraphernalia needed for safer drug use, increasing access to naloxone, informing best practices for harm reduction and addiction treatment including opioid maintenance therapy, and health promotion initiatives such as effective messaging for overdose prevention and response, as well as relevant educational materials. There may, however, be challenges in engaging with peers in policy and program development particularly when disagreements between peers and professionals in clinical decision making (e.g., opioid substitution therapy dose levels, supervised dispensing of medication) may hinder the ability to make appropriate decisions. Efforts to ensure checks in the balance of power between professionals and peers are crucial in these situations.
Evaluation of the contributions made by PWUD can be conducted through documenting policy changes over time and monitoring the effectiveness of programs. Depending on the policy or program, this evaluation may be conducted in the short, intermediate, or long term. As discussed previously, there is a need to publish findings from these evaluations in order to inform policy and program developers of the value of engaging with PWUD in the decisions around their lives. The engagement of PWUD can be further assessed using a tool such as Hart’s Ladder of Participation  or using a process evaluation tool whereby PWUD are asked to describe their experiences being engaged in policy and program development.
As highlighted here, there have been many examples of the successes of engaging with PWUD in the areas of policy and program development. Unfortunately, these examples were not published in a way that was identified in this narrative review. This may imply that others searching for evidence regarding the effectiveness of including PWUD in policy and program development may not have found these examples either. Therefore, efforts should be made to publish alternate versions of non-academic literature within publicly indexed academic journals. In addition, increasing the referencing of non-academic material within academic articles may be effective in incorporating non-academic articles within the searchable literature. Regardless, the engagement of PWUD has greatly influenced governments’ approaches to addressing the needs of this community. For example, in BC, a recent peer evaluation project on harm reduction drug paraphernalia identified the need for more relevant supplies to be distributed in order to address the changing drug use trends in the area . Additionally, peers have also been involved in informing their own health services needs. For example, peers identified the messaging of a recent coroner’s alert on heroin overdose to be inappropriate despite their efforts to warn PWUD about the “potent” and “strong” heroin circulating in the area. Instead, this message encouraged PWUD to seek out this drug and thereby, increase their risk of overdose .
This literature review demonstrates the lack of published data available on the initiatives taken by health professionals to include peers in policy and program discussions and meetings. We found this to be under representative of the work being done in this area. Although the overall literature on the subject does in fact incorporate significant references to peer involvement in research using PAR and CBPR methodologies, such articles were excluded from the review as their focus lies more on research processes and less on how these processes can actually contribute to policy and program development, which is the key theme of this review. This may also be a reflection of the research interest of academic journals themselves or that peer-run organizations may not have the expertise in academic writing to submit to peer review journals. The reliance on peer engagement in these approaches supports the need for further research to explore connections between PAR, CBPR and policy and program development in order to determine whether these types of research methods can be translated into policy making decisions by peers. Increased efforts are needed to provide evidence-based materials in order to make progress in this area.
We should note that the literature search process revealed a large body of literature on patient and youth populations, which we excluded from the review as it did not meet our inclusion criteria. Nevertheless, these articles point to the importance of engaging with peers in making decisions that directly affect them [4, 40, 41]. Within the healthcare sector, the importance of patient engagement has been increasingly recognized as an effective approach for public health interventions . These efforts to engage with patients and youth have been implemented in many countries, including the Netherlands and the UK [41–43]. Given that involvement at the policy development stage has shown high success and effectiveness in patient and youth populations, the authors’ argue that this success can also be transitioned over to other populations such as PWUD.
Despite the objective approach taken in this literature review, several limitations present themselves. First, this is not an exhaustive illustration of peer engagement in the context of policy and program development. The method used to conduct this review and the selection criteria may have limited the results of the literature review. The lack of published literature may be due to the fact that this topic may not necessarily have been published in the searchable peer-reviewed literature. In addition, our search in the grey literature may not have captured all documentation of engaging with peers. Hence, this analysis may not be reflective of all the work currently being done in this area among PWUD. Second, there may be a publication bias, given that significant findings are more likely to be published than inconclusive results.