Trust in healthcare institutions is essential to improving the health and well-being of communities. Patients who trust their providers are more likely to attend necessary screenings, seek out care in the appropriate settings, get essential vaccinations, and adopt recommended lifestyle changes. These and other preventive measures lead to better health outcomes.
But too often, we make faulty assumptions about the burden of establishing or repairing trust in the healthcare system. We assume that better patient education and more accessible information will lead to improved health literacy, and therefore improved trust in healthcare institutions. However, while these actions are necessary, they are not enough to build trust.
Healthcare organizations must take a more active role in overcoming distrust arising from historical disparities in care and upstream inequalities. Healthcare organizations that are serious about building and keeping trust across the communities they serve must be willing to be transparent in making cultural and systemic changes.
Here are a few key tactics healthcare organizations can deploy to earn trust.
- Listen and understand. To establish trust, the first step is understanding what your patients want and need. The best way to do that is by listening. There are several ways to ensure patients’ voices are heard. Every organization can incorporate human-centered design approaches to give patients a voice and better represent their lived experiences and update as needed over time. You can also establish formal venues for patient input on a recurring basis through patient advisory boards with diverse representation from your community. Healthcare organizations must have a clear view of their diverse patient populations and the unique challenges they face during encounters with you.
- Track data, while protecting privacy. It’s imperative to track information about your patient population’s personal values, utilization patterns and social risk factors to understand where your organization needs to improve in ensuring high quality experiences and equitable outcomes. At the same time, it’s crucial to establish data governance to protect patient privacy, particularly in the context of partnerships and access to novel health data streams, which are no longer limited to electronic medical record (EMR) and claims data. Consumers have been growing increasingly distrustful in recent years about how healthcare providers and technology companies use their data. Beyond protecting sensitive health data, you can also avoid collecting or identifying it in the first place. Novel techniques used in other industries, such as synthetic data creation, can be used to personalize experiences without putting patient information in jeopardy. Meanwhile, cryptography and decentralization offer opportunities in the future for patients to provide health organizations with visibility into a broader array of health data streams, while maintaining patient ownership of their own health data.
- Ensure authentic representation. At every level, a healthcare organization should reflect the communities it serves. In addition to prioritizing diversity in the provider workforce (especially in typically underrepresented specialties), healthcare organizations should prioritize the creation of diverse executive leadership empowered with budget, team and the ability to influence enterprise and functional strategy. It must be evident to health systems’ patient populations that these hires are not just performative additions to the executive team but rather are truly equipped to make progress.
- Invest wisely in the community. A budget supporting healthy equity efforts is one thing but being strategic and purposeful about how resources are distributed and used is another. People want to see investments tied to impact. Communities recognize – and can be quick to dismiss – symbolic investments that prioritize brand visibility over true impact. Organizations will win greater trust by tying their investment dollars to the highest impact areas in a health equity portfolio and soliciting direct input from the community.
With commitment and time, these four tactics can help health organizations tackle inequities and, in doing so, address root causes of historical distrust. Read more on how to help build trust.