Courtney Gray Haupt
Courtney Gray Haupt

2020 marks the 20th year Edelman has studied trust across institutions; it’s also a year significantly marked by the global pandemic, with many more questions currently than answers about the future of the world and the future of health. And yet, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: Trust and the COVID-19 Pandemic found that, surprisingly, trust in institutions broadly—and healthcare specifically—increased globally.

The January 2020 study found that in the U.S., only 56 percent said they trust the healthcare sector to “do what is right.” In May 2020, that number skyrocketed to 74 percent. Trust levels in healthcare subsectors in the U.S. also increased, in some areas quite dramatically from earlier in the year: 78 percent trust hospitals, an eight-point increase; 62 percent trust insurance, a 15-point increase; 69 percent trust biotech, 14-point increase. Though trusted by fewer people when compared to the other health subsectors, pharma at 64 percent trust had the largest increase—a record-breaking 26-point gain from January.

Digging deeper into the trust increase in pharmaceutical and biotech companies, Edelman conducted a separate U.S.-based study in May 2020, through our proprietary Edelman Trust Management research platform. Among the findings were that eight in ten Americans believe the United States won’t make it through the pandemic without pharmaceutical and biotech companies playing a critical role.

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

Clearly, all eyes are on healthcare to provide solutions during this unprecedented public health crisis. Yet this increased level of trust is no doubt joined with increased expectations of how healthcare companies—and particularly pharma and biotech—will behave both now and in the future. In addition to understanding what is expected of them, healthcare companies will need to clearly communicate how expectations will be met and the actions they are committed to taking.

What we also have seen, based on our 20 years of Trust Barometer research, is that maintaining double-digit increases in trust is tenuous and often unsuccessful. In fact, sharp rises in trust like those documented in the past six months are often followed by a significant loss in trust the following year. These massive trust gains are a promising opportunity for the healthcare industry, though positive sentiments are not likely to remain without sustained and long-term action.

Edelman data from several separate studies this year has helped shine a light on what healthcare companies can do to safeguard their trust gains, especially in three key areas:

Empathy drives research

The 2020 ETM study found seven in ten Americans trust pharmaceutical and biotech companies to tell the truth about COVID-19 and how they’re working to address it. However, more than half view current communications as “too corporate” and “lacking in empathy.” While scientists and researchers are working tirelessly to bring large-scale societal solutions to the pandemic, executives and institutional leaders need to focus on bringing empathy back to the discussion. This can be done by:

  • Showing real world impact through the stories of employees—like researchers, scientists, patient advocates, front line workers—who are spending their days dedicated to protecting patients and public health.
  • Convening patient advocacy groups and community leaders for meaningful and transparent dialogue about community needs and localized challenges and solutions.
  • Instituting regular CEO live check-ins on social media to answer common questions from the public.
  • Clearly communicating efforts to protect employees’ mental, physical and financial wellbeing during the pandemic and beyond.

Balancing politics with public health

The Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: “Workplace Trust and the Coronavirus,” fielded in August 2020, found that in the U.S., there’s a clear political divide in trusting the recommendations of public health authorities. When asked about actions required to keep workplaces safe from the spread of COVID-19, 63 percent of Democrats agreed on the mandatory use of masks while only 44 percent of Republicans said the same. On a broader scale, Democrats were more likely to say they would take a government-approved COVID-19 vaccine than Republicans, at 64 percent vs 59 percent respectively. With the political divide likely only to increase as the U.S. Presidential election nears, a focus on facts-driven, bipartisan communications led by trusted institutional voices will be critical. For example:

  • Partnering with local governments in high-risk communities on public health education and awareness efforts.
  • Highlighting cross- industry and public- private collaboration ef-forts to reinforce commitment to public health and pandemic solutions.

Heading into 2021, healthcare organizations will need to navigate the evolving regulatory and policy landscape with trust-driving solutions that transcend politics to address access and health disparities as well as the importance of science and innovation.

Solutions aren’t just COVID-specific

Making a COVID-19 vaccine, test or treatment is not a requirement for being perceived as contributing meaningfully to health solutions, our 2020 ETM study found. Meaningful and impactful efforts are judged based on other critical societal need. Case in point: there’s substantial concern with ensuring those who have chronic health conditions, outside of COVID-19, are still receiving the necessary care. Employee welfare, community support, transparency, in addition to pandemic resources, are all expected. Ways healthcare companies may showcase their impact to communities include:

  • Donating life-saving medications to community clinics or technology to high-risk populations who would benefit from telemedicine.
  • Conducting local media tours with organization leaders and researchers to disseminate high-quality, reliable information based on localized data.
  • Creating and promoting access programs to ensure those in high-risk populations are able to receive both the treatment and care needed.

Expectations are much higher as a result of the pandemic, and a majority believe that pharma/biotech are pivoting faster and more effectively to address the situation. But, a short-term, narrow focus won’t bring the long-term impact necessary to truly reshape trust for the healthcare industry, both in the United States and globally. As institutions’ brightest medical minds come together to bring us out of this pandemic, their business and communications leaders need to balance immediate needs with long-term public health goals. Sustained change is needed to ensure this critical moment systematically changes the trust people have in the organizations that spend their days dedicated to advancing public health.


Courtney Gray Haupt is U.S. Health Chair at Edelman.