Why is trust important in healthcare? The answer may be a little more complicated than it seems. Patients need to trust their doctors to get the most from their relationship, including following treatment plans accurately and coming in for recommended screenings, such as mammograms and Pap smears.
However, when mistrust is present, it is not always particularly clear whether this mistrust stems from doctors themselves or the healthcare system overall. An erosion of trust from any source has serious consequences for patients as well as doctors and the healthcare community at large. Fortunately, physicians have the opportunity to build trust anew with every patient.
Do Patients Trust Their Doctors?
According to a 2021 survey by USA Today, trust in healthcare workers is relatively high — between 70 and 80 percent. However, trust in the healthcare system, including national bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration, is much lower, at around 35 percent.
Medical Economics gives several reasons for an erosion of distrust in the medical system, such as:
- The availability of medical information on the internet. Medical information online often lacks context; patients may not realize that there is often more nuance to a diagnosis, set of symptoms or treatment than can be found on one website.
- General practitioners and specialists are seeing more patients in shorter appointment times; it simply takes time to build trust.
- Doctors (or their offices) are the ones who send unexpected bills when insurance does not cover a procedure. In some patients' eyes, providers may seem culpable for rising healthcare costs.
Why Is Trust Important in Healthcare?
When the clock is ticking during clinical time, conversations can seem rushed. In turn, patients may get a delayed diagnosis — or could simply feel as though they are not being heard. When patients do not believe they have a voice in the conversation, they tend to trust less; and if patients do not trust their physician, they may also not trust their recommendations.
Every patient brings their unique background into the office. They may have specific concerns as a person of color or as a member of another marginalized group such as the LGBTQIA+ community. Being sensitive in conversations tells the patient that you are considering their unique health needs. It also helps ensure that the patient understands procedures, such as what a diagnostic ultrasound entails (and why it is needed).
Medical Economics suggests that, in many instances, physicians are able to bridge some of the gaps in trust by simply being aware of why their patients may be hesitant to trust them or the system in which they work. Some ways to overcome this are by making the most of clinical time, listening without interrupting, and devoting more time to explaining decisions to patients. Patients want to understand why their doctor makes the recommendations they do so they can better participate in decision-making about their health and even finances.
In 2018, The New York Times wrote about the rising distrust of doctors during epidemics. They point out how the relationship between patients and the medical profession at large is a symbiotic one; as just one aspect of this relationship, the medical community needs patients who are willing to enroll in clinical trials so that new treatments can be developed. However, patients who do not trust the medical community are less likely to do so. Perhaps nothing in recent history has exposed this issue as much as the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent concerns over vaccine availability and hesitation.
This conundrum may take some time to overcome. Even if trust in the public healthcare system seems low, physicians can work on building the bridge of trust with individual patients, one patient at a time. Patients may not trust all doctors, but when they have a good relationship with their doctor, the physician has an opportunity to gently allay their fears. If a patient feels heard and believes their physician has their best interests at heart, then they will be more open to productive conversations about their health.