How to Foster Trust When Patients are Over-informed, Confused, and Distrustful

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Information Bankruptcy

COVID-19 has become like a sort-of “red-headed stepchild” we’re all now bound to as a result of a begrudging and undesired union. (No offense if you actually are a red-headed stepchild, but you get my point… hopefully). Whether we like it or not, this Coronavirus is a large part of our everyday reality, and it’s not going away any time soon. It’s touched every aspect of our lives with it’s grimey little fingers, and in case you haven’t already noticed, policies and procedures on how to navigate the pandemic are not exactly consistent. Even experts express different opinions on what’s safest and “COVID-kosher.” The available information on the matter is vast and varied. If the truth and scientific data is indeed out there, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s buried in the deep weeds of mis- and disinformation. The task of sorting through the overabundance of information is overwhelming and extremely confusing. Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, states it plainly: “This is an era of information bankruptcy.” (1)

A Critical Voice of Legitimacy

Last week we discussed how the overabundance of information is creating a culture of skepticism and distrust among patients. If you missed it, be sure to catch up here. It was a pretty bleak read– depicting the reality of the mass wave of distrust and confusion among patients as a direct result of the Infodemic. This week I’d like to lighten the mood and highlight the unique opportunity healthcare workers have to foster and inhibit trust among patients in a time of uncertainty and confusion.

From the office staff, to the physician visit, to billing – patients need a healthcare experience that reassures them on a variety of different levels. On the relevant importance of the primary care physician, author Timothy Hoff, PhD writes in his blog for Medical Economics, “Without a regular source of primary care that patients can turn to for expert advice, reassurance, listening, and empathy when it comes to questions, concerns, and anxieties about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, a critical voice of legitimacy is lost, making the loudest voices on the topic become those of politicians, who are less trusted, and public health agencies and experts, who also now increasingly suffer from the public crisis of confidence.” (2) The same can be applied to all areas of concern pertaining to healthcare during the pandemic, not just specifically the vaccines.

Do the Right Thing

In their article on healthcare trends for 2021, Fierce Healthcare listed trust barriers as number four on the list. Author Lindsey R. Resnick writes, “The pandemic has shaken consumer confidence. Debates over evidenced science, public health failings, and the politics of COVID has wary consumers asking: will you do the right thing when it comes to my health? There’s a trust gap, and to overcome it healthcare brands must deliver information in ways that move consumers to action, exude empathy and sincerity, and are agile enough to keep pace with the scale of marketplace change.” (3)

High Reliability Organization

Editor-in-Chief for NEJM Catalyst, Thomas H. Lee, took the time to interview the President of Philadelphia’s Jefferson Health, Bruce A. Meyer, MD, MBA. Dr. Meyer states, “[I]f you are going to have an activated patient, a patient who’s engaged in their health care and trying to be a partner in terms of improving their outcomes, you can’t have that without a patient who has a high level of trust, not just with the individual provider, but with the healthcare system that that provider is in. If the staff don’t believe that the organization is trying to do the right thing by patients and the right thing by the staff, then it’s difficult for the staff to impart that sense of trust and high reliability to patients and families.” (4) If your patients don’t believe that each and every healthcare worker they encounter during their visit has their best interest at heart, chances are highly unlikely they’ll trust that their physician does.

Consistent messaging through a variety of different ways, in addition to consistent accessibility offered through an assortment of different avenues are crucial in gaining your patients’ trust. Patients need to feel assured that the healthcare organization is prioritizing their healthcare needs.

In summary regarding communication as a tool to foster trust, Dr. Meyer states, “Safety comes out of that transparency and that open communication with the community, and it’s sort of what being a high-reliability organization is.” (4)

The article is a wealth of both inspiration and information; it would be well worth a read.

Financial Transparency

Want to know a sure-fire way to earn your patients trust regarding their health? Be open and transparent with your finances. There’s a reason why your mother taught you that openly asking questions regarding someone’s finances is rude. It’s considered highly private and personal information. However, in the context of the patient-provider relationship, honesty, empathy, and compassion around finances can directly increase your patients’ trust level. We’ve written blogs in the past regarding compassionate and open communication regarding financial matters. In case you missed it, here’s just one of many you can find from our experts.

In addition to some of our own writings, David W. Baker, MD, MPH provides some great insight on the matter in his article for JAMA Network, “Trust in Health Care in the Time of COVID-19.” He writes, “To achieve this level of trust, clinicians and health care systems must, above all, convince people that they put patients’ best interests above any financial or non financial self-interest of their own.” (5) He later goes on to explain the benefits of clinicians disclosing, “direct COIs (e.g., royalties from medical devices, ownership in facilities, speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies) as well as indirect COIs (working for organizations that receive financial support for participating in clinical trials).” (5) COIs have been an ongoing point of distrust, but are especially sensitive in today’s politically-charged climate.

No doubt about it, your patients will trust you with their healthcare when you offer compassion, empathy, and transparency around finances. The old adage stands: “money talks,” and your patients will be able to discern where your healthcare facility’s priorities lie.

What Matters Most

I’ll conclude with a summarizing quote from the same JAMA Network article, “There is no better demonstration of what it means for clinicians and healthcare systems to put patients’ interest above their own, and this may be what matters most for patients’ trust.” (5) The job of a healthcare provider is self-sacrificing by nature, but unfortunately we live in a day and age where that can easily become twisted. In a world where everyone seems to be shouting their own opinions and needs above those of others, I believe humility, transparency, and kindness will speak the loudest and go the farthest in gaining and maintaining trust.

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Thank you!

Jerry L. Stone
MedicalGPS, LLC



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