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Fact and Fiction: How Doctors Can Re-Establish Trust in an Era of Misinformation

The crisis of trust has implications for physicians, from patient interactions to malpractice juries.

It’s no secret that trust in authority has been collapsing for years—and in the wake of a global pandemic, physicians now sit in the crosshairs of mistrust among many patients. When science and fact are often dismissed as biased and misinformation spreads rapidly, re-establishing trust with patients is a difficult, but essential, task. By understanding the origins of this mistrust and how it presents itself within the medical community, doctors can rebuild patient confidence in their expertise and help provide quality care to the broadest possible swath of patients.

An Epidemic of Misinformation

Many patients perform online research before visiting their physician to take an active role in their diagnosis and treatment. This is not problematic in and of itself, but unfortunately, misinformation is prevalent across online forums, introducing confusion and generating mistrust.

In fact, according to a recent study by Edelman Intelligence, more than 60% of Americans report that they find it difficult to distinguish between real and false information. This inability to discern between fact and fiction can make patients fearful of medical care and question their physician’s expertise and dedication to their well-being.

Dr. Lynne Fiscus, CEO and President of the University of North Carolina Physicians Network and a Curi member since 2017, sat down with Curi to share her experience with growing mistrust among patients. “As we work with hundreds of clinicians across the state, we’re consistently hearing stories of how disheartening it is for physicians, particularly those in primary care, to suddenly feel as though their patients no longer trust them.” She continued, “It’s been devastating for so many folks who are just trying to do the right thing and hang in there with patients through their uncertainty.”

Dr. Fiscus added that medical mistrust is often evident among those who are skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccine. She believes that giving patients more personalized attention may be the best way to address their concerns. “It just takes the right conversation at the right time to help patients become willing to accept the vaccine,” she shared. “I recently heard from another physician that in one week she was able to give five adults their first vaccine during office visits. She did this by taking the time to have conversations that are meaningful and impactful, which is exactly what they needed.”

When Politics Obscures Science

One major contributor to medical mistrust has been the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine. Where vaccine skepticism was once reserved for the political fringes, now it has moved more toward the mainstream.

Doubts surrounding COVID-19, including its treatment and the safety/efficacy of vaccines, have led many Americans to question the institution of medicine as a whole. Medical governing bodies such as the CDC and the FDA are now sometimes viewed as political agencies that exist to further the agenda of whichever party is in power.

This politicization of medicine and medical science has many patients questioning the motives of their physicians, ultimately reducing their trust in the care they are provided. Patients have become fearful that their well-being is no longer at the center of their medical care, and that it is their responsibility to advocate for themselves against potential harm. This perception of mistrust has infiltrated the legal arena as well.

Challenges in the Courtroom

Recognizing Americans’ growing mistrust in medical science, plaintiffs’ attorneys have begun tapping into this political polarization in medical malpractice trials. Drawing on the concept of “fake news” espoused by some politicians, these attorneys are attempting to invoke the concept of “fake medicine” to discredit physician opinion and expertise among juries.

Michael Gross, Managing Director at CogentEdge, a leading witness preparation firm, said, “The old belief that doctors hold a sacred or protected position within the community is changing, and there’s more of a burden for physicians to show juries they care and are trying to do what’s best for the patient.” He added, “When that’s not demonstrated through documentation, some jurors immediately believe more could and should have been done to prevent the injury, harm, or death.”

Gross pointed out that plaintiffs’ attorneys are using this trend to upend some of the traditional implications of jurors’ political leanings. “The typical conservative juror in the past could be relied upon to use fact, reason, and science to result in a defense verdict,” he said, adding, “Now, because some jurors do not trust medicine, science, or fact, they instead come up with their own belief system and find fault with the doctor.”

Building Back Patient Trust

Re-establishing patient trust begins with engagement. Patients often feel that their concerns go unrecognized by their providers, creating a perception that physicians have moved away from individualized care. One way to combat this phenomenon is to give greater attention to patient feedback.

Practices should consider creating new platforms for patients to provide feedback following their appointments, giving physicians and staff the opportunity to acknowledge their experiences and respond accordingly. This can often be done by issuing follow-up surveys and monitoring online patient reviews.

Physicians also need to establish themselves as a trusted partner to their patients by keeping patients as informed as possible about treatment plans. It’s important for them to provide clear and comprehensive information about medical procedures and treatment options, thereby creating a collaborative environment with patients that alleviates any confusion or anxiety. In addition, physicians may wish to arm themselves with clear statistics and information about the most common concerns they hear from patients. For example, many patients may have encountered unsettling false statistics about various vaccinations. By sharing clear and accurate information backed by data, physicians will have the ability to counteract and quell many fears associated with immunizations.

Practices may also choose to publish their outcomes, quality rankings, and other data to help patients make more informed decisions about where to receive their care. When patients have more information about the quality of care they will receive prior to setting an appointment, they may be more at ease and open to placing trust in the physician’s expertise.

This level of intentional responsiveness, inclusion, and transparency can help rebuild patients’ trust in their healthcare provider in a meaningful way.

The Most Trusted Source

Even in this era of medical mistrust and misinformation, Dr. Fiscus still believes there is hope. “When you look at who people will believe and trust, in the end it’s not the meme their cousin posted on Facebook. They’re influenced by it, sure, but their most trusted source is still their physician.”

“Our opinions still matter, even if it sometimes feels like they don’t,” she continued. “We have the power to change perspectives by showing patients we genuinely want to understand where they’re coming from and help them through confusing information. Our relationships with our patients will make the difference.”

Letter From the CEO

Fall 2021

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