Background The involvement of service users in healthcare education has followed an increasing focus on patient-centred services. CETL4HealthNE, regional healthcare education collaboration, undertook a literature review to inform involvement strategies. Objectives To identify-approaches used to involve service users in healthcare education curricula; perceptions of key stakeholders; impact of involvement on students' knowledge and skills, and the quality of care delivered. Method A structured search of the literature on service user involvement in Higher Education healthcare curricular activity was undertaken (July 2006-February 2007). Papers were screened and data extracted and synthesized according to the aspect of the curriculum enhanced by involvement and level of impact evaluation. Results Thirty papers addressed interventions in pre- and 11 in post-registration education. Thirty studies reported on evaluation. Students and service users both benefited from service user involvement in health care programmes. There was limited evidence that involvement changed behaviour in practice or significantly benefited the recipient of care. Conclusions Service user involvement in curricular developments for healthcare professionals is a policy imperative aimed at improving their experience of services. Despite a limited and weak traditional evidence base for impact on students' knowledge and practice, both students and service users identify benefits from engagement. Further development of evaluation methodologies is required.