How the art of medicine can save America’s distrust in science

Doctor in protective suit inject vaccine shot to patient illustration

Republicans and Democrats don’t seem to be speaking the same language on COVID-19. According to exit polls, 81 percent of Americans who voted for Joe Biden ranked COVID-19 as their top issue, compared to just 15 percent of Trump voters. 

That discrepancy is prompting some introspection by public health officials. Their message about the severity of COVID-19 isn’t getting through. 

As a result, the public health community needs to adopt a new approach — one that meets people where they are and is built on compassion and empathy.

It’s not surprising that there is growing distrust in the public health community’s COVID-19 guidance, given that medical recommendations and scientific insights have been inconsistent and contradictory throughout the pandemic. 

An example is guidance on masks. Early on, the surgeon general, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization all declared mask-wearing ineffective. Within months, they said just the opposite. 

Politicians and public health officials have urged people to stay home, avoid restaurants, and put off travel. But many of them have gone on to engage in exactly the sorts of activities they counseled against. 

This kind of inconsistent messaging and behavior has made it harder for people to know what to do to protect themselves and their families from the coronavirus. And it’s undermined the efforts of public health institutions to respond to the pandemic.

That’s a serious concern. When more than 40 percent of Americans say they’re unlikely to speak with a public health official by phone or even text message, all efforts at contact tracing become incredibly difficult. Fewer than 60 percent of Americans say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available to them at no cost. 

Even if presented with valid scientific evidence, many Americans don’t necessarily believe it. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, refuting claims of a link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine “decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes.”

People of color in America have historically distrusted the medical community due to systemic racism and discrimination. They may not believe that treatments and vaccines will be available to them or distributed equitably. And they may worry that treatments and vaccines are not safe because they haven’t been created or tested safely for people of color.

If public health officials want to regain people’s trust, they’ll have to add a dose of empathy to their communications regimen.

For example, instead of badgering people into getting vaccinated, public health officials can genuinely listen to why people are distrustful. With a greater understanding of someone’s concerns and misconceptions, they’ll have a greater opportunity to establish the essential ingredient of trust.

Another worthwhile strategy is to de-politicize hot-button topics by avoiding loaded words and phrases. Instead, use common language that people understand. The term “social distancing”  has become entangled with political fervor, but at its core, it means nothing more than the common practice humans have adopted for millennia: stay away from those who are sick. Don’t let the message undermine the meaning.

Deploying trusted messengers who can speak with an audience instead of to an audience works wonders. A study published last year by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that people who previously opposed genetically modified foods but changed their minds were far more effective at attracting other anti-GMO people to their point of view than more direct forms of argumentation.

Finding ways for public health officials to regularly interact with those who distrust science — whether through canvassing efforts, televised press conferences, or online town-hall events — puts a face to the mission and humanizes the scientific community.

In the end, it’s pretty simple. To rebuild trust, the scientific community needs to proactively address people’s safety concerns using culturally and linguistically appropriate information that creates connection and shared understanding.

This is the art of medicine. The science gets us far, but it’s nothing without the human touch. In clinical practice, my patients never trusted or respected me because I told them to. I earned their trust not by vomiting information and scolding them but by transforming complicated evidence and data into personally meaningful insights.

The art of medicine, more than the science of medicine, can rebuild the trust and respect that is needed to help us weather this and all future public health crises.

Dr. E. Hanh Le is Chief Medical Officer at Healthline Media.