Trust is an important component of any healthy relationship, as we all know. When it comes to doctor-patient relationships, a bond of trust has been shown to improve patient outcome, adherence to advice and patient satisfaction. Yet, with attention-grabbing headlines like “Don’t Trust Your Doctor,” and recent surveys showing a decline in patient-physician trust, locum physicians might wonder how they fit in.

Roots of Mistrust

Recent research has shown a steep decline in patient/physician trust, down from 76 percent in 1966 to just 34 percent in 2012, according to research from Harvard School of Public Health. Of course, some research suggests that increased cynicism is just a product of our times, in general. Other possible origins include:

  • “A few bad apples”—When physician errors are made, news spreads, sometimes nationally. Such news may affect public perception.
  • Insurance/HMO’s/etc.—The profit-driven nature of the healthcare field can cause patients to feel they are “just a number,” and not individually treated and cared for.
  • White lies—Studies have also shown that a number of patients omit data or tell “white lies” to practitioners, particularly about lifestyle health factors. Such alterations of truth may lead to a sense of mutual distrust.
  • Third-party decision making—With insurance guidelines and practice norms in place, patients may get the impression that their doctor isn’t “calling the shots.” In fact, clinicians may at times also feel that way.  Still, there is ample evidence to suggest that practitioner persistence, in the quest for patient care, can alter the course of even third-party decisions.

Against such a backdrop, locum tenens physicians may be in a unique position to improve patient perceptions of care.

Where Locums Fit In

A growing number of medical schools and programs recognize the need for practitioner empathy training.  Beyond simple, “How do you feel about your diagnosis,”-type questions and more detailed intake forms, modern empathy training emphasizes the fiduciary relationship.  Fiduciary derives from the Latin word “confidence” or “trust,” a vital component of both the diagnostic and therapeutic process.

Locum clinicians have two distinct advantages in building fiduciary relationships:

  1. The very nature of locum work, where you encounter a variety of clinical styles and healthcare settings, may make you more adaptable (and possibly even more empathetic) that many practitioners.
  2. Overworked clinicians, understaffed practices and overly tight schedules can contribute to less effective care. Healthcare organizations are therefore recognizing the need for locums staffing, lightening the load for all involved and better serving patients.

Locum physicians can therefore establish relationships of trust with patients, regardless of assignment time frame and improve patient outcome in a variety of healthcare settings.