Physicians are charged with the tremendous responsibility of caring for patients. Within this dynamic, patients believe that physicians will act within the best interest of their health and will uphold patient privacy. The nature of this physician-patient relationship places patients in a vulnerable position, requiring them to place a great deal of trust in their doctors. According to a literature review published in the Journal of Healthcare Communications, patients expect their physicians to be compassionate, honest, empathetic, and dependable. These expectations require patient confidence and reliance.

Based on a 2021 UChicago Harris/AP-NORC poll, 70% of respondents trust their physicians. Similarly, a Pew Research Center survey, 74% of Americans have a predominantly positive view of their physicians. In this survey, 57% reported feeling that physicians have a patient’s best interests in mind, 49% sufficiently diagnose and treat conditions, and 48% give fair and accurate advice.

Patients Believe That Trust Must Be Earned and Maintained

On another note, merely 15% felt that physicians were forthright regarding conflicts of interest with industry groups, and only 12% believed that physicians honestly reported mistakes made during care. According to the survey’s authors, trust must be earned and maintained, with communication and interpersonal skills at the helm of the physician-patient relationship.

A physician-patient relationship with solid communication and interpersonal skills ensures that patients feel a sense of respect and value when with their physicians. Patients need to know that their thoughts matter to their physicians. A study published in the Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care (JANAC) found that respect and partnership are essential in cultivating a trusting physician-patient relationship. Respondents noted that respect indicates that physicians are listening to them, treating them as individual humans, and valuing their thoughts and experiences.

Careful Listening, Clear Communication, Eye Contact, and Empathy Are Key

According to an article published in The Hastings Center Report, studies found a patient’s view of their physician’s interpersonal skills affects how they perceive their physician’s level of caring and competence. This, in turn, is central to the trust that exists within physician-patient relationships. Elements like careful listening, clear communication, eye contact, and empathy all contributed to a great sense of patient trust in their physicians. Laura Specker Sullivan, author of the article, noted that trust was clearly different from simple satisfaction. Sullivan suggests airing out any concerns right from the start, so as to establish a solid foundation of trust at the outset.

Medical journalist and editor Naveed Saleh, MD, MS stresses that most patients trust their physicians. However, this trust comes with the need for physicians to periodically examine their physician-patient relationships, asking themselves if they are indeed continually working to maintain that foundation of trust. Physicians benefit from examining their communication and interpersonal skills, ensuring that they earn patient trust by exhibiting allied, respectful, and compassionate care.