The start of the third year of the pandemic is a sobering reminder of the devastating toll COVID-19 has taken on the world and our communities. Significant scientific strides have been made in the last 24 months. But the pandemic further deepened the health divide in the United States and is now illuminating the inextricable link between trust and societal health.
While global trust in the health sector has remained relatively strong over the past two years, it has not been consistent. The regular peaks and valleys tracked by the Edelman Trust Barometer during the pandemic expose the immense communications challenges health organizations face when navigating complex and evolving science in a world inundated with misinformation.
The latest data released in Edelman’s Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust and Health highlight just how personal trust has become. The number of Americans who say they are confident in their ability to find answers about healthcare questions and make informed decisions for themselves and their families saw a steep 10-point drop from 2017. And the impact is magnified among Americans with lower levels of trust in the health ecosystem: 63 percent of them say the COVID-19 pandemic decreased their confidence that the U.S. healthcare system is well-equipped to handle major health crises, while 51 percent in the same group say the pandemic weakened their relationship with their healthcare providers.
Trust is the greatest challenge facing health policymakers, with quality and reliable information the most crucial pillar on which that trust rests. Without accurate, accessible and trusted information reaching all stakeholders—especially those most at risk—even the best and most well-intentioned health policies will have limited impact.
TRUST: A DEEP CONNECTION TO PUBLIC HEALTH
For years, behavioral scientists have examined how societal situations determine a person or community’s overall health risk—from physical environment and socioeconomic status to personal choices and behavior. However, our latest data show trust must be another critical consideration when evaluating the overall health of a society and the general likelihood its people will be receptive to new health policies.
The data show individual trust in the health ecosystem to be a key predictor of health behaviors. Americans with higher trust in the health ecosystem are more likely than those with lower trust to be fully vaccinated (38-point gap), have routine checkups (23-point gap), and go to the dentist (23-point gap). And Americans with lower levels of trust in the health ecosystem are more likely to rate the quality of healthcare which they have access to as less than “very good.” It’s simple: higher trust is correlated with better health.
With government seen as increasingly less competent and less ethical, and trust being a direct determinant of health, businesses and NGOs must partner with government bodies and leaders to prioritize clear and effective communications to build trust, improve health outcomes and increase the likelihood that health policies will have their intended effect.
TO BUILD TRUST, THE HEALTH SECTOR MUST DOUBLE DOWN ON INFORMATION
While good health policy can and should facilitate better access to care, without clear information and evidence-backed communications from expert voices that foster trust, even the best policies won’t reach their full potential.
While it’s long been understood that cost is one of the largest barriers to care, a lack of information is another top barrier, trailing cost by only three points globally. We saw the direct impact of misinformation and messaging challenges throughout the pandemic—as the science evolved and policies needed to change, the messaging shifted, and trust continued to erode. Today, 53 percent of Americans say they are unlikely to adjust their behavior unless messaging is consistent across multiple expert sources—a risky statistic when the health sector relies on ongoing innovation and science to improve the wellbeing of the people it serves.
Perhaps the starkest consequence of this comes in another data point: more than one in three in the U.S. have experienced negative health impacts due to confusion over unclear health information. That number is probably even greater when taking into account the amount of people whose health has suffered because they were unaware of or didn’t understand U.S. health policies that could benefit them. Trusted communication—especially about health policy and science—has real-life, irreparable consequences.
DRIVING TRUST FORWARD—A CALL ON BUSINESS TO ACT
To stabilize trust in health and increase the effectiveness of health policies, cross-sector collaboration that connects trusted voices and clear information to stakeholders is critical. How businesses act moving forward will play a key role in shaping effective improvements to public health. As shown in global data from the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, released in January, business is seen as more competent than government by 53 points—requiring the institution to step up and act as a stabilizing societal force, including in the healthcare space:
- Clearly communicated, evidence- and expert-backed messages are necessary to break through the noise of misinformation. Our latest survey showed the top three reasons for Americans believing sources and following their advice on COVID-19-related issues are: 1) data and evidence to back up messages (30 percent); 2) clear, easy-to-understand language (30 percent); and 3) health expertise and knowledge (29 percent).
- Trust and information are intrinsically linked: among Americans, 65 percent of those with higher trust in the health ecosystem consume health information (from major news organizations, corporations, or influencers) at least once a week. That drops to just 36 percent among Americans with lower trust.
- The distribution of easily accessible, clear information is critical to both establishing and sustaining the trust necessary to drive measurable impact and improve health outcomes for individuals and public health overall.
Courtney Gray Haupt is U.S. Chair of Health.