Trust lies at the heart of healthcare. That’s because the level of trust between a patient and their care team affects an individual’s willingness to seek care and adhere to treatments.
Challenges we faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, including incomplete and late information about the spread of infection, conflicting guidance regarding the use of face masks, and questions about the efficacy of vaccines, eroded public trust in the U.S. healthcare system. It has yet to recover. A recent Gallup poll shows that only 34% of Americans say they trust the medical system, down a full 10 percentage points from the same summer period in 2021.
Related: Working to elevate the patient experience
Lower trust in the healthcare system inclines people to follow advice from friends, family or social media rather than their doctors, according to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer report. And when health professionals fail to take seriously a patient’s concerns or to use clear and simple language, it can feel disrespectful. As a result, patients are then often less likely to trust us and follow our recommendations.
Fortunately, more healthcare organizations and institutions are speaking openly about this loss of trust and its causes. Physicians and industry leaders have an opportunity to rebuild trust with patients by taking the following steps.
Respect the patient voice
Patients are asserting their right to self-determination at a time when surveys show they do not feel respected by physicians, clinicians and staff. This convergence is testing trust in medical professionals.
Specifically, 21% of respondents to recent McKinsey research say their clinicians do not listen to them or understand their needs, 22% report feeling treated with less respect than other patients, and 28% say they believe clinicians and staff made assumptions about them that influenced how they were treated.
Healthcare providers can address these concerns by ensuring each patient feels treated with respect. Kaiser Permanente has invested in learning programs to foster inclusion and attention to cultural and language competency, and many of its medical groups have made them part of their performance goals. These efforts during the pandemic helped win over unvaccinated patients in underserved communities where mistrust of healthcare is common.
Accelerate the shift to physician-led, value-based care
While Americans’ trust in healthcare institutions has declined, physicians remain among the most trusted professionals regarding health issues and ethics in general. It follows that patients are more likely to trust healthcare organizations that are led by physicians.
In value-based care organizations, physician leadership, aligned incentives and innovation converge. This gives healthcare organizations the flexibility to develop capabilities that advance care delivery.
Innovate to meet patients where they are
The rise of walk-in clinics in big box stores that allow people to procure medical services where they also purchase bread and garden supplies underscores the importance of meeting patients “where they are.” For example, Kaiser Permanente clinics provide healthcare at 34 Target locations in Southern California. Such retail clinics are expanding rapidly among other providers as well. Data show 58% of Americans are likely to first seek non-emergency healthcare in non-traditional primary care settings.
An improved patient experience at home or in other settings can engage patients who might otherwise delay care, leading to better outcomes, which builds patient trust. This is why it’s so important for healthcare organizations to make it easy for patients to review their own health records and tap into high-quality and convenient medical expertise via video, phone, e-visits or in-person care.
Shift more care into the home
Treating patients where they live can lead to better outcomes and higher rates of patient satisfaction—an important metric to measure overall healthcare quality and also build trust.
Health systems can close care gaps by appropriately moving acute care into the home. These programs enable patients, who may not have ready access to a hospital, to receive acute-level care in the convenience and safety of their own home.
Provide culturally responsive care
Equitable access to healthcare is a key component of social and economic equity. To this end, we are reducing and, in some cases, eliminating health disparities among racial and ethnic groups.
For example, Kaiser Permanente Northern California research published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that a decade of enhanced screening for colorectal cancer essentially eliminated disparities in cancer outcomes between Black and white members in Northern California. The study also found that organized screening outreach—proactively identifying members who need screening and offering a choice of tests—improves colorectal cancer outcomes for all our members.
Patients report that having a clinician who has empathy, is culturally responsive and/or looks like them greatly influences their willingness to seek care when they need it, participate in screenings and adhere to other clinician recommendations that can lead to better outcomes.
Patient engagement, treatment adherence, improved patient outcomes and ultimately patient satisfaction all rely on trust among patients, clinicians, private health organizations and public institutions. Everyone who plays a role in the healthcare system should leverage every touch point to build trust with patients.