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Patient Trust in Clinician, Public Health Expert Credibility an Uphill Battle

New survey data showed that patient trust is still recovering post-pandemic, with people trusting the credibility of layperson family and friends over clinicians and health experts.

The healthcare industry has a big credibility and patient trust problem on its hands, with new data from Edelman showing that 34 percent of people think any average layperson could know just as much as a trained doctor with a simple internet search.

That could spell bad news for patient outcomes and well-being, as distrust in the healthcare ecosystem, public health experts, and providers could leave some to trust unvetted healthcare advice or medical misinformation.

This data comes after three years of a global pandemic that has tested the population’s patience and trust in public health experts. Healthcare advice changed rapidly during the early days of COVID-19, and mitigation efforts were often viewed as intrusive into people’s everyday lives. None of that is to mention the discourse surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, creating a trio of messaging challenges that has harmed the public’s confidence in healthcare.

Now, healthcare professionals are left dealing with the aftermath of that speculation, with the Edelman report, based on global surveying of over 12,000 individuals, showing Americans don’t trust their healthcare providers. Instead, people are more trusting of their social circles, including family and friends, for healthcare information.

While people still mostly trust doctors and nurses for health information (80 and 79 percent, respectively), trust in non-experts is nearly equal, with 78 percent of people saying they trust their friends and family about how to best protect the health of the public.

While there is something to be said about the power of persuasion an individual’s social circle and trusted community leaders may have, the report indicated a more concerning trend: people don’t trust the expertise of trained clinicians and public health experts.

In fact, 34 percent of people agreed that the average person could know just as much as a doctor with the help of some research. These people said they have followed advice from friends and social media that contradicted their doctor and claimed that the advice worked out.

Patients are also putting themselves in the driver’s seat, with 3.5 times more people saying they are educating themselves more about healthcare than last year.

This trend may be more indicative of stronger patient engagement and activation, with at least some (39 percent) of these respondents saying they like to verify whether the information they consume is true. Still, providers may want to counsel patients on how to vet good online health information.

After all, it will be in the best interest of health systems, providers, and public health to continue to connect and build trust with disaffected populations. People with a good, trusting relationship with their primary care provider were 4.3 percent more likely to see good outcomes, the report showed. People with trust in the overall healthcare ecosystem were also 3.3 percent more likely to experience good outcomes.

Healthcare providers can do this by adopting principles of patient-centered care. Around eight in 10 respondents said they want their providers to treat their needs, follow up with them, start appointments on time, and take their time during appointments.

Three-quarters said they need their providers to take their concerns seriously and deeply listen to them.

Finally, 63 percent said their providers can build trust by treating them like an individual and asking questions about their lives.

Healthcare experts, like public health officers, can build trust by treating patients like equals. That doesn’t necessarily mean experts need to act as though they and the public have the same qualifications. Rather, it means acknowledging the burden some public health messages might place on someone’s everyday life.

Sixty-two percent of survey respondents said they need to hear from health experts about how a health change will improve their life, while 67 percent want a way to ask questions. Importantly, six in 10 said they want health advice to be informed by data collected by people like them, making an argument for diverse clinical trials and medical research.

It will also be key to have a multichannel approach to healthcare messaging tailored to varying trust levels. For example, those with high trust in the healthcare ecosystem are most receptive to hearing from their healthcare providers and national health authorities; these entities need to be allowed to take the lead on some healthcare messaging.

Among populations with low trust in the healthcare ecosystem, employers, family, and friends are the most credible for healthcare messaging. It is an impossible task to have public health leaders give everyone’s family and friends accurate health information—plus a roll of the dice whether they will heed the advice.

But this could be an area where using community health partners is effective. Faith leaders and other community-facing entities have proven somewhat effective in reaching disaffected individuals.

And when public health officials and providers do interact with less trusting individuals, the report indicated that outlining one’s credentials and giving an opportunity for laypeople to ask questions is critical, the report advised.

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