Chowning J. Aguilera
Chowning J. Aguilera

Members of Congress and people in car sales: on the surface they don’t have a lot in common. But they were, in fact, the two least trusted professions according to a 2018 Statista study. Most trusted? Unsurprisingly, nurses followed by doctors.

While the study examined individual professions, it’s easy to assume this trust translates to the business segment in which these professionals work. Perhaps 20 years ago that would be the case, but brands, regardless of industry, have continued to experience trust erosion with the consumers they serve. Healthcare as an industry is no exception. One study indicates our trust in the healthcare profession plummeted from 75 percent in 1966 to a mere 34 percent in 2018.

Healthcare’s trust erosion may be slower than other industries due to our deeper trust for nurses and doctors. However, the shift of patients to consumers, evolving generational preferences and changing belief systems weakened healthcare’s once perceived immunity. Simply put, trusting our doctors and nurses isn’t enough to make us trust in the organizations for which they work.

It’s not surprising why, when you consider some leading factors. For one, healthcare costs continue to climb while consumers shoulder more financial burden than ever before. With the advancement of technology comes questions around our personal health information’s security, ownership and use. And while other industries continue to innovate to meet modern-day consumer demands, healthcare continues to lag behind.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)

A further fall from grace or reinvention

Enter COVID-19. The places and people we look to for our care in sickness and wellness reached a new crossroad. In one direction is a path to reinvention; in the other is a further decline on the trust spectrum, both equally dependent on how healthcare organizations responded in past months and how they’ll respond moving forward. Mass adoption of telemedicine, which puts the consumer in control of where and when they receive care, is one leap forward in the right direction, and to be sure, there’ve been a few during this time. However, regardless of what these organizations do, there are boulders that have been placed in their path.

Public health’s politicization. At one point in time, public health was seen as a key component of the social contract. That’s no longer the case. We’ve seen examples of local government, public health entities and healthcare organizations working together for the greater good, but more often in dysfunctional or disjointed ways. Hospitals and health systems are trying to care for our communities as they always have, but the reality is that COVID and all its complications have placed them squarely in the middle of the political story.

Care avoidance. While many are back in the saddle and seeking routine and emergency care, hospitals continue to see patients avoiding non-COVID-related emergency care, leading to unnecessary health complications, and in some cases preventable deaths. The public’s anxiety, uncertainty and fear run the risk of creating deeper distrust and barriers in accessing care.

Media landscape polarization. The COVID reporting era proves repeatedly that hospitals and health systems are consistently painted in a negative light. On the other side, honor and praise fall upon individuals providing care. Clickbait stories, misinformation and a perceived lack of transparency from healthcare organizations could create long-term challenges in re-connecting with the communities they serve.

Our healthcare organizations and the people who hold them up are road weary, weathering what’s left of this storm and continuing on paths to recovery. Some will emerge in their communities recognized for their Herculean efforts, but others will lose footing and trust.

Communicating with care

Communications and marketing can’t be a salve for all war wounds, but public trust is in large part contingent on how well healthcare organizations utilize these tools. The industry’s pre-COVID march toward consumerism already demanded reinvention in positioning, marketing and communications, creating moments of connection, engagement and humanity. COVID upped the ante. Organizations that put the following considerations at the center of every effort will inch ahead of the competition in earning back consumer trust or deepening the trust they already have.

People centerstage. While healthcare can still rely on the mantra of “build it and they will come,” earning community trust, affinity and loyalty requires a perspective shift. Marketing the hospital, medical group or service line with brand name alone can miss the mark. Patient stories are compelling because we see ourselves in them. But what’s missing in creating a deeper sense of connection? The people: the doctors and nurses, the greeters, the patient access staff, the environmental services team and myriad of individuals who make healthcare hum. Show the people behind the care, tell their stories and enable communities to connect with them on a human level, well beyond their clinical excellence.

Transparency and tone. Healthcare organizations want and need patient volumes to continue increasing to a normal level. Many consumers are ready to get back to routine care and planned procedures that were delayed. Others are still concerned and anxious, aka “care avoidance.” As a result, organizations have to meet everyone where they are. They need to imbue a sense of transparency. While most healthcare organizations won’t want or be able to share all details, finding the right places to bring the public and media in, figuratively speaking, will create a sense of openness.

Empathy always. Like every sector, maintaining business continuity from a marketing and communications perspective has been a delicate dance since March. What do we need to communicate right now? Can we restart campaigns, do we need to pivot or pause entirely? If we do push something out, how do we convey our messages without alienating or offending audiences? The list goes on and the climate that impacts our answers is dynamic. Whether it’s a media statement, internal communications or marketing service lines, an empathy-first mentality needs to be at the core of everything. Recognizing the feelings of your audience, potential anxiety and different risk appetites should guide what you say and how you say it. Without empathy, we unintentionally risk fraying fragile consumer trust.

A healthcare organization’s reputation is a mix of what they say and how they say it along with what they do and how they do it. The result? Caring for patients is inexorably combined with the way these businesses market and communicate. COVID offers healthcare an opportunity to begin building deeper, more authentic engagement with constituents, perhaps even inching ahead of other industries struggling to regain consumer trust. So, let’s strive for healthcare organizations to top the trust charts, not just the care teams who work inside them.


Chowning J. Aguilera is Healthcare Practice Lead at Jackson Spalding.