Why Do We Trust Doctors?

The National Journal has released a Special Report. The Report features a series of  four articles: Restoration Calls – Fixing America’s Crumbling Foundation. Among these articles is: “Why Do We Trust Doctors?”  It contains results of a Gallup poll, showing trust in doctors is at all-time high of 70% over the last ten years.

This is intriguing considering numerous media articles on physician personal profiteering and physician partnerships in technologies such as imaging equipment  for financial gain.

The article begins, ”We’re cynics about insurance companies and critics of big health companies.  So why do we still believe in physicians?”

Why indeed?  The author of the April 26 piece, Margot Sanger-Katz, tells the story of 60 year old Mary Morse-Dwelley of Maine who has undergone 22 operations to close an abdominal incision and who has had her gallbladder, uterus, and 2 feet of intestine removed.  She has spent two years in bed. Despite this long surgical ordeal, she implicitly trusts her surgeon. So does the American public, if you believe Gallup.

When patients are asked why they trust doctors, patients say they see doctors as someone who is trying their best to help them. They do not see them as agents of government, insurance companies, or institutions. They trust the interpersonal face-to-face relationship and the motives of their doctors.

Doctors are respected for their altruism. On the other hand, patients may distrust the insurance system which stands as an intermediary between them and the doctor. They trust the face-to face relationship with the doctor and see him or her as someone trying to fix their problem.

In most cases, Internet information has helped cement the patient-doctor relationship. As a consequence of online-information, doctors are more likely to describe the downside of treatment, put the odds of success in perspective, and give more respect to the patient’s choice.  In a sense, doctors are more likely to team up with the patient.

In this process, doctors have slowly learned a lesson. A honest appraisal of the situation, based on data and an honest apology should things go wrong goes a long way towards preserving patient-doctor trust. Patients can forgive honest mistakes or unexpected complications but not denials or cover-ups.

Richard L. Reece is a retired pathologist and the author of The Health Reform Maze: A Blueprint for Physician Practices. He blogs about health reform, medical innovation, and physician practices at medinnovationblog.

4 replies »

  1. I think that people trust doctors at one level because doctors are socialized to disclose what they know and what they don’t know and for the most part they tell you that. That is rare in a capitalist society with a “Let the buyer be wary” attitude. Secondly, doctors in general are objective about some of the most emotional aspects of life. Third, doctors have been thrust into an advocacy position by managed care and their partners in government payer systems. Fourth, doctors in general are interested in doing the right thing and you can still find a doctor who impresses with this quality.

  2. I would have agreed with you on the altruistic motivations of doctors until I became a self-pay patient and discovered how physicians work the system to their benefit and fail to treat me fairly when it comes to remuneration. Now, when I consider going to the doctor I don’t trust them to mark their procedural sheet in a way that reflects the treatment I receive. I am given a discount for paying cash but it is nowhere near what is fair and reasonable according to the Health Care Blue Book. I’m sure there are charitable doctors out there, but are they the majority?

  3. Well people normally trust doctors because they seem to present genuine concern and a remedy to their illness. Most people are hoping for a cure no matter what and doctors are basically there to guide patients through the treatment process.

  4. I asked my one college professor why she chose to go into medical reporting. She said, “A doctor is the most honest person you can interview.”