Fewer than two-thirds of US adults (57%) believe that doctors always care about their patients’ best interests, according to the results of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. And, only 12% of Americans say that doctors generally admit and take responsibility for their mistakes.
In addition, only about half of people surveyed (49%) say that physicians do a good job providing diagnoses and treatment recommendations, and about an equal number (48%) say doctors provide fair and accurate information when making recommendations.
The good news is that 74% of Americans still have a positive view of doctors, in an overall sense.
Trust strolls in, but gallops away
For this report, Trust and Mistrust in Americans’ Views of Scientific Experts, Pew researchers surveyed 2,238 US adults about medical doctors. They found that the American public is widely skeptical about professional and scientific integrity (and not just regarding physicians, but also with medical researchers and other scientific researchers of all types).
“It is now generally acknowledged that doctors can no longer just assume that patients will simply ‘trust’ them because of their position in society or their extensive training. Trust therefore needs to be won and kept, because ‘trust comes on foot and goes away on horseback’. In other words, once trust has been lost, it is very difficult to regain it,” wrote Paul Ward, PhD, professor, College of Medicine and Public Health, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, in an unrelated editorial in Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Interestingly, Dr. Ward’s editorial focused on a study about distrust of vaccinations. He noted that parents may trust their child’s doctor about getting inoculated, but still distrust industry and the research community (ie, “science” as an institution) about vaccines.
In a similar way, the Pew researchers found that Americans trust practitioners more than they trust researchers working in the same disciplines. For instance, 48% of respondents said physicians provide fair and accurate information about their recommendations all or most of the time, but only 32% said medical research scientists do the same when discussing their research.
A ‘moderately big’ problem
As many as half of Americans (50%) say professional misconduct among medical doctors is at least a “moderately big” problem. Even worse, Americans’ confidence in the repercussions of medical misconduct is low: only 20% believe that doctors’ misconduct will lead to serious consequences.
Further, Americans differ by race in how they perceive medical misconduct. Specifically, 71% of black and 63% of Hispanic individuals say physician misconduct is at least a moderately big problem, compared with 43% of white individuals.
But Americans of all stripes are more concerned about issues of integrity: only 15% of US adults believe that doctors are transparent about potential conflicts of interest all or most of the time, while only 12% say doctors usually admit and take responsibility for their mistakes.
Age—or perhaps experience—also plays a role in how well Americans trust in their doctors. For instance, more than half of respondents age 50 years and older (56%) believe doctors do a good job providing diagnoses and treatment recommendations all or most of the time, compared with 42% of those under age 50. Similarly, older adults (65%) are more likely than younger adults (49%) to believe that doctors care about their patients’ best interests all or most of the time.
Then again, perhaps older people simply have more experience with physicians? The Pew researchers found that Americans who are more familiar with doctors have more positive and trusting views of them. For instance, among those who said they know a lot about the work of doctors, most (65%) believe that doctors care about the best interest of their patients all or most of the time, compared with 53% of those who said they know only a little about doctors.