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For people navigating the healthcare system, trust in their medical team is incredibly important. And yet, too often I see how healthcare organizations and experts either fail to establish trust or break it. Trust is a fragile thing. Building it requires improving how you communication with patients and caregivers. Once broken, it takes an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources to attempt to rebuild it, if that’s even possible.

In my work with pharmaceutical and healthcare organizations, I draw on my personal experiences navigating the system on behalf of my late husband and my decade-plus time as a patient/caregiver advocate. These insights bring a different perspective to help organizations better understand how to build trusting relationships with patients. For many of us, a lot of thought goes into selecting the healthcare team and making treatment choices. What do we look for?

During initial consultations with medical teams from three top cancer treatment centers in Los Angeles, my late husband and I listened carefully to the information being provided in response to our well-researched list of questions. We also paid attention to other cues. Was the team organized with all his test results and background information? Were they relatively on time? Did they give us their focus and attention or were they rushing through to get on to their next thing? Did they use good eye contact and did they listen? And as author Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point uncovers, there were a million other unspoken pieces of information that went into our decision regarding who we would trust with his life.

Once we made our decision, we entered into the partnership with 100% belief in the treatment approach his oncologist set in motion. We did not follow in blind faith but we gave the doctor credit as being fully trustworthy. From there, the actions that followed became the barometer by which we could measure if they were maintaining the trust we had invested in him. They never faltered.

Some pieces of trust are given and some are earned. It is a fragile thing and easily broken. Some patients and caregivers culturally and historically feel mistrustful of a system that has ignored and abused them. Healthcare experts need to be mindful that past traumas may mean that trust building takes more time. Asking questions such as ‘how can I best support you?’ or ‘do you have any religious or cultural needs that I should be aware of to care for you in a way that is respectful of these needs?’ or ‘what, if any, traumas have you experienced that may make a physical exam difficult for you and how can we best navigate that together?’

Trust is foundational to every relationship. Who do you trust? What is it about them that helps you to trust them? Notice these qualities and characteristics, then ask if this is how you show up for others. Taking an inventory on what creates trust for us in others is a great way to also self-assess and make sure we, too, are creating trust.

For healthcare providers, building trust and creating a safe space are two critical components to improving patient adherence to medication and recommended lifestyle changes.

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