OP-ED: In the Age of Pandemic, Rebuilding Trust

By Jerry L. Maynard II

It seemed inevitable.

The outbreak of a pandemic in a politically charged America has left many of us grasping for what to believe and who to trust when it comes to medical information. Elected officials and medical experts have been at odds over what steps we should take to stay safe or if we even need to take steps. Many physicians are left scratching their heads dealing with patients who insist there is currently a cure for COVID-19. The Cleveland Clinic was forced to issue a public warning about using vodka as a hand sanitizer and a library warned its patrons not to microwave their borrowed books before returning them with scorched pages.

I understand the challenges health care providers face in getting their patients to take their own health seriously. I spent more than a decade as an attorney representing hospitals, clinics and physician’s practices. I’ve listened to doctors tell me patients often don’t ask questions because they don’t want to hear the answers doctors will give. If you’ve ever encouraged a friend or family member to quit smoking, you know what I mean.

But in a broader sense, many of our neighbors are skeptical of any medical information coming from our public health authorities. An August poll of Americans by CNN shows that more than 40% of those surveyed indicate they will not take a vaccine for COVID-19 even if it were widely available at low cost. Physicians and public health experts work hard to dispel myths about the coronavirus, but it’s difficult to compete with social media posts spouting bizarre theories about the pandemic that have received more than 500 million page views according to Avaaz, a non-profit tracking medical misinformation.

Of course, some of the mistrust is not without precedent, especially in the African American community. Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service supervised a clinical study in which black males in Macon County, Alabama were offered free health care, but were secretly injected with syphilis in order to study the progression of the disease. The bonds of trust that were broken by the Tuskegee Study have still not fully been repaired among many black Americans, even though the skepticism with which Americans view news about the pandemic and vaccines in general cuts across all demographic groups.

As a result, Nashville General Hospital has taken on the role of raising the level of health literacy among the patients they serve as a vital to their mission. It’s one of the reasons the Congregational Health Education Network was created, working with local churches to teach their members why indicators like blood pressure and cholesterol are important tools to monitor overall health. It’s also why Nashville General created the Food Pharmacy to teach patients, many of whom live in food deserts, that a healthy diet is as important to health as following a medication regimen.

On October 22, Nashville General Hospital will host a virtual forum on health literacy featuring some of the nation’s top experts on increasing knowledge of our own health care options, from top universities like Washington University, Rutgers and Vanderbilt. Like the physicians at Nashville General, these experts understand the need to dispel myths and misinformation about the public’s role in public health. Becoming health literate doesn’t mean we all need to study for an exam or take a course on physiology, but it does mean knowing enough to ask your doctor the right questions. And most physicians would be grateful to have that conversation.

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