Patient trust in doctors and the healthcare system is declining and has been for years.

As noted in our blog about Wise Healthcare Consumer Month, 73 percent of Americans said they had high confidence in medical leadership in 1975. Only 34 percent felt the same way in 2018, according to Gallup poll. A 2017 SERMO survey found that 87 percent of U.S. physicians said patients trust their doctors less than they did ten years ago.

Patients point to professional misconduct, lack of transparency about conflicts of interest, and failure to take responsibility for mistakes as some of the reasons, says a Pew Research report. Others include the fear that physician offices won’t keep patients’ personal information secure or costs low.

The consequences of such severe mistrust go beyond the physician's status and lead to decreased patient compliance, poorer outcomes, corrosive physician-patient interactions, and physician burnout.

There is hope, however, if health system leaders and staff make a concerted effort to improve their reputation and earn back the public's trust.

Two key ways to gain—and keep—patient trust are being actively involved in community activities and addressing social determinants of health.

Community Involvement  

Community involvement in this sense means meeting people where they are and participating in both medical and non-medical service projects.

Practical ways include:

Community health education focused on topics such as injury prevention, opioid addiction, diabetes management, pregnancy, and nutrition. Go a step further and offer vaccinations or free screenings at community health fairs and health-related fundraising events.  

Non-profit hospital leaders likely already have this type of initiative on their minds due to the requirement to conduct a Community Health Needs Assessment, which can provide direction for the hospital in developing community-based education programs. That said, it’s important that the community sees the hospital and its staff stepping into community betterment not just because they have to—but because they want to.  

Medical professionals can demonstrate their commitment individually by joining civic groups like the Rotary Club, Kiwanis, or a community action organization, and hospital employees can involve themselves in school, sport, and church activities—all the while building relationships that lead to increased trust.  

Partnership with business is yet another way to invest in the community. SCP Health offers a direct-to-employer business development program that links healthcare facilities with local employers and serves as a community liaison to coordinate employer and community relationships on behalf and as part of your hospital.

Another way to deliver a benefit is by using SCP’s patient navigation service, which provides follow-up telephone contact and engagement with patients discharged from the emergency department.

Regardless of the direction you take, the goal is to improve the quality of life for the people in your community and take a step toward restoring trust and build patient loyalty.

Social Determinants of Health

There is more to rebuilding trust than hosting a health fair or participating in a fundraiser, however.

Another impactful strategy is to view the community as your patient and take substantive measures to improve population health. That starts with assessing your community's social determinants of health (SDH).

If you ask clinicians why they pursued careers in healthcare, many would say they wanted to help people lead healthier lives. Yet research based on health measures from nearly all U.S. counties demonstrates that medical care is just a small part of what determines whether a person is healthy.

The social, economic, and environmental factors that comprise SDH also play a significant role in defining a person's quality and length of life.

An American Hospital Association (AHA) presentation on the topic of SDH went so far as to say that a mere 20 percent of a person's health and well-being is related to access to care and quality of services. That means 80 percent of health outcomes are attributable to the physical environment, social determinants, and behavioral patterns.

In response, AHA developed a series of guides as part of an initiative called Advancing Health in America that tackles three of these issues — food insecurity, transportation, and housing — and the role hospitals can play in affecting change.

Each guide lists examples of innovative programs hospitals have initiated to improve community health. Here are a few to spur your thinking:

  • An Arkansas hospital, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers free healthy lunches to children on campus and in clinics;
  • A Maryland hospital has a Mobile Health Center that provides primary and preventive care services to residents with transportation challenges;
  • A hospital in Kansas City has a Healthy Homes program that offers environmental health assessments, and repairs and renovations to improve housing stability in the community.

Not only must hospitals bear the burden — physicians also have a responsibility to fulfill.  

The AMA Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 8.11 says physicians should appreciate the influence of social determinants of health and "encourage an open dialogue regarding circumstances that may make it difficult to manage chronic conditions or maintain a healthy lifestyle, such as [the availability of public] transportation, work and home environments, and social support systems.”

"Their daily experience of interacting with patients and their credibility as health experts make them valuable voices to and for their patients, institutions, and communities," says the AMA Journal of Ethics. "Their positions enable them to marshal both the data that provides the rationale for community investment and the demand for that investment. By asking questions about patients’ lives, clinicians can treat not only symptoms but also the underlying causes of poor health."

The mandate is clear: Both hospitals and physicians have accountability to treat the community as their patient and take steps to improve population health. Doing so not only benefits the community at large but also builds a bridge of trust and confidence with its inhabitants.

Conclusion

It's well-regarded that patients who trust healthcare professionals are more satisfied with their treatment, have fewer symptoms, and pursue healthier behaviors. When trust erodes, both patients and hospitals suffer, which means hospitals and clinicians must work in tandem to restore confidence and ultimately, see long term success as the provider of choice in their communities.

An excellent way to start is by getting involved in your local community with medical and non-medical activities and developing innovative approaches to address social determinants of health and improve population health.

If you want more information on working for or with a company that boldly prioritizes patient trust and community engagement, contact us to get the conversation started.

Related Resource:
Case Study: Elevating Community Health by Partnering With Employers
Case Study: Utilizing Direct-to-Employer Marketing to Engage A New Patient Population