Susan IsenbergSusan Isenberg

Healthcare has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years, from the emergence of more precise diagnostic tools, to the discoveries of life-saving treatments for rare diseases, to the use of artificial intelligence to empower clinical trials, patient records and robotics-assisted surgeries, among other remarkable innovations. But is trust in healthcare advancing as rapidly as the industry itself?

The Edelman Trust Barometer found healthcare was just barely trusted in 2019, with only 61 percent of Americans agreeing they trust the sector to do what is right. While this score represents an eight-point rebound in trust from 2018, in the U.S., healthcare ranks among the bottom three of all sectors of business studied in terms of trust, tying with fashion and with only financial services behind it.

O'Dwyer's Oct. '19 Healthcare & Medical PR PR Magazine
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '19 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine.

Trust in healthcare also has concerning disparities across several important populations.

Though globally the industry is trusted by both the informed public (defined as those who are between 25-64 years of age, college-educated, in the top 25 percent of household income per age group in each market and report significant media consumption and engagement in public policy and business news) and the mass population, this year marked a record high in inequality between trust levels across these two groups. There’s a global ten-point trust gap between these two audiences, with 75 percent of the informed public reporting that they trust healthcare versus only 65 percent of the mass population reporting the same. This widening gap underscores the instability of trust. It also may be reflective of the mass population continuing to feel left behind in their ability to access healthcare innovations even as they recognize the advances being made. Given the environment today, and that the mass population is particularly less trusting, healthcare may continue to see increasing demands for change and regulation.

There’s also a gap in how men and women trust healthcare across the general population, with the highest disparity of all markets studied in the U.S. Only 53 percent of American women said they trust healthcare, verses 69 percent of American men, a 16-point gap. Also concerning, this divide between women and men has continued to grow over the last few years. Given that women are often the “chief medical officer” for their families and lead healthcare decisions across generations of family members, they are a critical group for restoring trust.

One area where healthcare companies may have more room to build trust is around technological advances. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that, globally, people feel generally positive about health tech, with 76 percent agreeing they trust health tech to make life better for “people like me.”

People trust tech as much as they see their own benefits linked to it, though personal data can be the Achilles’ heel. For healthcare companies to build on the trust halo around their technology, consumers must know their data is private and protected. How will patient data be leveraged to create efficiencies in the delivery of care and more personalized treatments? How will technology provide behavioral reinforcements that improve patient adherence and compliance needs? These questions will need to be clearly explained as health and tech continue to merge.

Telling a company’s health-tech story is one opportunity to build trust. Another avenue is to activate across multiple communications channels to ensure key audiences—particularly women and the mass population—are reached.

Globally, the Edelman Trust Barometer found that while media is still distrusted, media engagement actually rose this year; meaning more people are reporting consuming news weekly or more. Trust in both traditional media and search engines also rose. Traditional media remains an important part of the communications model, but it is important for health companies to recognize that this does not fulfill the need for organizations to also tell their own stories. In fact, trust in owned media—that’s a company’s own channels like a corporate website, blog, application, etc.—saw an eight-point jump, one of the largest increases we have seen across the types of media studied.

Additionally, Edelman Trust Barometer data showed healthcare companies’ content about medical conditions and their treatments is seen as credible by 68 percent globally, and this increased by four points since the 2018 Trust Barometer. This is a clear opportunity for health companies to leverage their owned media channels to reach consumers.

Finally, to earn and keep trust, healthcare companies must be transparent, particularly about pricing.

The Edelman Trust Barometer found that globally, being transparent around the cost of products and services was the most important factor for how healthcare companies can earn and keep trust. This should be no surprise as pricing is one of the top issues dominating global healthcare headlines. All healthcare companies must be prepared to discuss cost, particularly in markets like the U.S., where there’s been a call for government action.

The innovations healthcare companies provide to society are remarkable and much needed to prevent and treat disease and enhance overall human wellness. When speaking to these advancements, our healthcare stories need to match audience expectations so that the industry’s remarkable breakthroughs are trusted.


Susan Isenberg is Global Chair at Edelman Health.