Mistrust in the healthcare system — everyone’s a critic

by Jodie Syner

How mistrust challenges the healthcare system, and what we can do about it.

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At one time or another, each and every one of us has relied on our healthcare services — be it by visiting our local GP with the flu, community pharmacist for painkillers, or doctors and nurses during unexpected trips to A&E. Healthcare is an essential part of modern society, but year after year, it faces new and growing challenges.

With an expanding and ageing population and preventable diseases becoming more common, our understaffed and underfunded healthcare services are under threat. Surprisingly, one of the greatest challenges facing the healthcare industry is a growing mistrust among us, the general public.

Over the last few decades, the proportion of people who trust their doctors has fallen drastically. Surveys of the general public have uncovered a plethora of reasons for people’s mistrust, including racial discrimination, a lack of doctor-patient empathy, and medical errors.

In the age of information, we’re overwhelmed with articles, opinions, and “fake news,” and it can be difficult to separate out the facts. Viral news spearheads the production of inaccurate, biased, or manipulated articles. For instance, in 2015, Vox wrote that “the best way for a doctor to make money in the United States right now is simple: prescribe treatments.” This article reaches a huge audience and paints an image of apathy, misconduct, and capitalism. However, in most cases, this image is far from the truth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a devastating blow for most people, and researchers are working harder than ever to understand this new virus, produce a vaccine, and develop treatments. For the public, the crisis has brought an onslaught of rapidly changing information, facts, and guidelines that just aren’t communicated appropriately. This deluge of information has also led to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people unwittingly overestimate how much they understand about a given topic. The spread of conspiracies and fake news regarding COVID-19 highlights this phenomenon.

Although the growing mistrust and scepticism may seem mostly harmless, the healthcare industry is suffering their knock-on effects. We’re seeing more patients disregard medical advice or not follow prescriptions, fewer people visit their GP for check-ups or volunteer for clinical trials, and a rise in radical groups such as anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers.

This group mindset is self-perpetuating and dangerous not only for those lacking trust in healthcare, but for those around them. In the last few years alone, vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and mumps have been on the rise, particularly across the UK and US.

Much of the mistrust of the healthcare industry may be accounted for by a lack of understanding. Given that news sources can be conflicting, biased, or inaccurate, it’s no surprise the public is largely misinformed. Data needs to be accessible and easily digestible by the general public as well as specialists.

This is where good medical writing comes in.

The little-understood fields of medical writing and medical communications span from journalism to regulatory writing. The fields, which are dedicated to concisely conveying scientific data to specialists and non-specialists alike, might be just what we need to win back the public's faith in healthcare!

Improving the general population’s understanding of important health issues is an important step in not only regaining patients’ trust in the healthcare system, but also in protecting the health of our communities.

From our local GP and pharmacy to the pharmaceutical companies and research groups developing life-changing drugs or therapies, the healthcare industry supports us on a daily basis — we need to support it, too. Don’t believe everything you’re told, question “facts” and information sources, and encourage those around you to do the same.

Jodie Syner is a research masters student of molecular and cellular biosciences at Imperial College London. Her major interests lie in molecular biology and sustainability.

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