Trust and the “Infodemic”

The article “The Trust Crisis” (Spring 2022) describes in detail the dire problem of the public’s declining trust in health care. While that decline has been wide-ranging, it is important to distinguish the distinct domains of trust discussed: (1) the trust that individuals have in their health care providers, who have long been among the most trustworthy professionals in society; and (2) trust people have in public health agencies and figures, which has suffered precipitously during the pandemic.

This growth in mistrust stems directly from the “infodemic” of misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 that spread rapidly, and especially on social media. The problem is so profound that the U.S. surgeon general issued an urgent advisory, labeling it a public health threat and calling on health care professionals to speak out against misinformation. Tragically, much of this false information about vaccines is being spread by a small group of health care providers. Simultaneously, the public began to lose trust in both public health institutions and professionals, attacking them when providing guidance on public health measures.

To reverse this trust crisis, we must first hold health professionals who spread disinformation accountable. The Federation of State Medical Boards and several nursing and medical boards announced that they would take disciplinary action against disinformation-spreading clinicians, including suspending their licenses. Second, we should support and protect health professionals from harmful attacks when they counter misinformation. Social media companies need to flag and prohibit the spread of both false information and malicious attacks against those trying to spread truthful information. Third, we must train current and future health professionals to counter misinformation. At the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, we have implemented recent innovations in science communication, including teaching the creation of infographics to address misinformation, writing op-eds that reach a wide audience and creating dynamic TED-style talks for the public.

While the infodemic has damaged the public’s trust in both the health care system and in health care professionals, clinicians can still leverage their trusted voice through the care of our individual patients and partner with patient communities to rebuild trust. Hopefully, as the article quoted Professor Adam Berinsky, “Even if patients don’t know what to believe, and don’t trust the health care system, most still trust their own physicians.”

Vineet Arora, MD, MAPP // Dean for Medical
Education, UChicago Medicine

Venkatesan Ram Krishnamoorthi, MD //
Assistant Professor of Medicine, UChicago Medicine