How physician leadership can restore trust in the patient-physician relationship


By Ramin Davidoff, MD

Today, health care faces a crisis in trust, largely fueled by the explosive increase of mis- and disinformation during the pandemic, combined with the polarization of a deeply divided American society. While physician leadership and the perception of physicians as “health care heroes” has been called into question over the last few years, doctors and other clinicians remain among the most trusted professionals. For the sake of patient safety alone, we need to solidify that.

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As a physician, I’ve experienced this first-hand: my role as a healer holds a special place at pivotal moments in people’s lives. We recognize the honor, the privilege, of being in this position, and I believe this may well be the key to restoring and rebuilding the physician-patient relationship. Whether during the birth of a child, open-heart surgery,or the passing of a loved one, patients depend on their physicians and clinicians when they are at their most vulnerable. By literally placing their lives in our hands, patients put a tremendous amount of trust in us. Physicians can keep patients’ trust by establishing rapport with them, and by ensuring that they feel heard at every interaction.

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Genuine human connections require patience, empathy, and time. Unfortunately, these resources are in short supply given the increase in administrative demands on physicians and patients’ expectations for convenience, whether from their grocer, mechanic, or health care system. Despite these challenges, physicians must make the most of every patient encounter with effective communication, transparency and by meeting the individual’s care needs. These building blocks of the physician-patient relationship are essential to providing high-quality, person-centered care, and ultimately, to rebuilding trust.

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Here are three ways physicians can strengthen their relationships with patients and in doing so maintain a sacrosanct bond that is unique in all of industry and society:

  1. Embrace communication and transparency.

Keeping patients fully informed about their care increases transparency and engages them to actively participate in their care. It increases the agency patients bring to medical decision making and fosters an environment where a patient feels they are collaborating with their doctor, rather than being judged, lectured, or ignored. Kaiser Permanente supports patient engagement with online tools that help patients communicate with their physicians and provides open access to clinical notes so patients understand the “why” behind their care and can ask more informed questions or correct inaccuracies.

  1. Commit to equitable, culturally competent care.

Black and Hispanic patients report lower levels of trust in their physicians than white patients and are more likely to report that their care needs and concerns are not taken seriously, which, according to multiple studies, is often true. Physicians must also examine their own individual practices to identify unconscious biases and beliefs that can affect the care they provide.

  1. Be a trusted, scientific voice.

Reactions to the pandemic fueled a widespread rise in medical misinformation, making it even more challenging for patients to know who to trust and know when and how to make informed decisions about their care. Physicians can help patients navigate false information by listening to their concerns, conveying empathy, and providing evidence-based resources.

Increasing transparency, delivering culturally competent care, and providing evidence-based information will play important roles in restoring trust. However, in an era of increasing demand on health care resources, physicians will need to collaborate with patients to set realistic care goals to maintain that trust. And as physicians empower patients to make decisions that reflect their personal preferences, they are more likely to follow through with a treatment plan, leading to better health outcomes.