Americans Don’t Trust The Medical Profession

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Americans count among the least trusting of the medical profession, according to an international health care survey. The findings, which appeared in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, show significant levels of suspicion of doctors, especially among those who make less than $30,000 annually.

Researchers studied public health polls dating back four decades, including one conducted by a consortium of universities between 2011 and 2013 during which people in 29 countries answered survey questions. In that poll, 58 percent of Americans said they trust the medical profession, placing the United States in 24th place with Croatia.

“It fits with decades of data on the American public’s trust in institutions, in general,” Michael Gusmano, a scholar at the Hastings Center, a Garrison, N.Y.-based research institute that focuses on health care, told WebMD.

Skepticism of the medical profession hasn’t happened without any reason. Experts point to unequal access to health care and the “commercialization” of American medicine as key factors at play in that damaged relationship. Some people say that members of the medical field often seem more concerned about protecting their financial interests than caring for patients, especially those from less affluent backgrounds.

Big Pharma has historically tried to influence the advice that doctors give patients, something that may make Americans wary of the field in general. In exchange for their endorsement of prescription medications, physicians receive free samples and gifts that include coffee mugs emblazoned with the drug company’s logo, tickets to sporting events, expensive dinners, and trips to exotic destinations. At the peak of Big Pharma’s profitable relationship with the medical industry in 2007, more than 100,000 representatives made visits to more than 650,000 physicians across the country.

This can sometimes have a direct effect on patients. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in August, for example, found that doctors in hospitals with a strong black patient base encouraged breastfeeding to expectant mothers at a rate 15 percentage points less than that of their white counterparts, due in part to a relationship between the facility and manufacturers of baby formula.

Americans’ mistrust of the medical industry has been on full display in the weeks since American Ebola patient zero Thomas Eric Duncan died in a Dallas hospital.

Days after CDC officials assured Americans that the disease would spread no further, two nurses who treated Duncan tested positive for Ebola. Many of the nurses who had direct contact with patient zero before he succumbed criticized the medical establishment, saying nurses at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas treated Duncan for days in an open space in the emergency room under constantly changing protocols and without sufficient protective gear.

The controversy has discouraged some Americans from trusting what CDC officials are saying about the United States’ ability to contain the virus. According to one recent poll, nearly half of Americans don’t think their local hospital could safely treat an Ebola case.

That has facilitated the spread of panic about Ebola — anxiety that may pose a bigger threat to Americans than the virus itself. Instead of listening to federal health officials, many Americans have looked to sensationalized media reports and reckless words of commentators and politicians as indicators of Ebola’s impact in the United States.

There are other examples of how some Americans’ mistrust of the medical profession undermines public health. An increasing number of parents are skipping or delaying their children’s recommended vaccination, due in part to a belief that the injections cause autism and other sicknesses. Members of the scientific community beg to differ, especially since vaccinations in the last two decades have prevented nearly 700,000 deaths. But the parents who choose to delay their kids’ vaccines don’t trust scientists’ opinions on the subject.

The study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine does have another significant finding: Even when Americans are skeptical of the medical industry as a whole, they do trust their own doctor. So information about things like Ebola and vaccinations might need to come from those immediate sources rather than national spokespeople.