(Re)building Trust in Public Health

A public health professional doodle reaches out a hand to a perplexed-looking doodle.

We don’t have to tell you, dear readers, that the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to distrust in public health. When scientific knowledge and health guidance evolve quickly, people often feel confused or misled. Plus, the rise of misinformation has made it hard to tell fact from fiction. And let’s not forget the polarized political climate and rapidly evolving technology (generative AI, anyone?). With this recipe for information overload, it’s no wonder many people have tuned out, lost trust, or both.

Systemic injustice plays a role, too. People from historically marginalized communities — including people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities — may have experienced discrimination and mistreatment from health care providers. And in trying to teach people about health conditions, some experts have shared harmful messages about these groups and others, contributing to stigma in our society.

So where do we go from here? The good news is that health communicators can help rebuild trust by communicating with empathy: creating communication materials that truly reflect our audiences’ perspectives, needs, and lived experiences. And though we’ve featured these tips in other contexts, we thought it was worth rounding them up here.

So if building trust is your number 1 priority, here are a few ways to get started:

  • Learn from your audience. No time for user research? Exploring resources created by and for your audience is a great way to learn.
  • Partner with trusted organizations. People are more likely to trust health info when it comes from an organization they already know and feel connected to.
  • Be honest about what we know and don’t know. To address confusing U-turns, acknowledge that our understanding of health issues is bound to change as researchers learn more about the topic.
  • Use terms your audience uses. Follow your audience’s lead on terms related to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and disability. Using your audience’s preferred terms shows that you respect their identity and experience.
  • Listen with an open mind. Take time to reflect on criticism, even when it’s hard to hear. Be willing to pivot if your communication strategy isn’t resonating with your audience.
  • Acknowledge injustice. For example, when you’re writing about health risks, name how racism plays a role in health outcomes. To take this a step further, consider acknowledging harms that your audience may have experienced, like discrimination in health care.

We know trust is a complex topic, and there’s a lot to unpack here. How are you working to build (or rebuild) trust with your audiences? As always, you can respond to this email or find us on social (LinkedIn or X) and let us know what you think.

The bottom line: We can help rebuild trust in public health by communicating with empathy: creating communication materials that truly reflect our audiences’ perspectives, needs, and lived experiences.

Post about it on X: This week, @CommunicateHlth explores how health communicators can help rebuild trust in #PublicHealth by communicating with empathy: https://bit.ly/3Q1OFhZ #DEI #HealthComm #HealthLiteracy


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