Why Doctors Are Losing Trust in Patients; What Should Be Done?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


December 09, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University School of Medicine.

I want to talk about a paper that my colleagues in my division just published in Health Affairs. Amanda Zink, Lauren Taylor, and a couple of others wrote a very interesting piece, which I think has significance and importance for all those doing clinical care in American healthcare today.

As they pointed out, there's a large amount of literature about what makes patients trust their doctor. There are many studies that show that although patients sometimes have become more critical of the medical profession, in general they still try to trust their individual physician. Nurses remain in fairly high esteem among those who are getting hospital care.

What isn't studied, as this paper properly points out, is, what can the doctor and the nurse do to trust the patient? How can that be assessed? Isn't that just as important as saying that patients have to trust their doctors to do and comply with what they're told?

What if doctors are afraid of violence? What if doctors are fearful that they can't trust patients to listen, pay attention, or do what they're being told? What if they think that patients are coming in with all kinds of disinformation, false information, or things they pick up on the Internet, so that even though you try your best to get across accurate and complete information about what to do about infectious diseases, taking care of a kid with strep throat, or whatever it might be, you're thinking, Can I trust this patient to do what it is that I want them to do?

One particular problem that's causing distrust is that more and more patients are showing stress and dependence on drugs and alcohol. That doesn't make them less trustworthy per se, but it means they can't regulate their own behavior as well.

That obviously has to be something that the physician or the nurse is thinking about. Is this person going to be able to contain anger? Is this person going to be able to handle bad news? Is this person going to deal with me when I tell them that some of the things they believe to be true about what's good for their healthcare are false?

I think we have to really start to push administrators and people in positions of power to teach doctors and nurses how to defuse situations and how to make people more comfortable when they come in and the doctor suspects that they might be under the influence, impaired, or angry because of things they've seen on social media, whatever those might be — including concerns about racism, bigotry, and bias, which some patients are bringing into the clinic and the hospital setting.

We need more training. We've got to address this as a serious issue. What can we do to defuse situations where the doctor or the nurse rightly thinks that they can't control or they can't trust what the patient is thinking or how the patient might behave?

It's also the case that I think we need more backup and quick access to security so that people feel safe and comfortable in providing care. We have to make sure that if you need someone to restrain a patient or to get somebody out of a situation, that they can get there quickly and respond rapidly, and that they know what to do to de-escalate a situation.

It's sad to say, but security in today's healthcare world has to be something that we really test and check — not because we're worried, as many places are, about a shooter entering the premises, which is its own bit of concern — but I'm just talking about when the doctor or the nurse says that this patient might be acting up, could get violent, or is someone I can't trust.

My coauthors are basically saying that it's not a one-way street. Yes, we have to figure out ways to make sure that our patients can trust what we say. Trust is absolutely the lubricant that makes healthcare flow. If patients don't trust their doctors, they're not going to do what they say. They're not going to get their prescriptions filled. They're not going to be compliant. They're not going to try to lose weight or control their diabetes.

It also goes the other way. The doctor or the nurse has to trust the patient. They have to believe that they're safe. They have to believe that the patient is capable of controlling themselves. They have to believe that the patient is capable of listening and hearing what they're saying, and that they're competent to follow up on instructions, including to come back if that's what's required.

Everybody has to feel secure in the environment in which they're working. Security, sadly, has to be a priority if we're going to have a healthcare workforce that really feels safe and comfortable dealing with a patient population that is increasingly aggressive and perhaps not as trustworthy.

That's not news I like to read when my colleagues write it up, but it's important and we have to take it seriously.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Thank you for watching.

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