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Putting patients first earns public trust

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The importance of doctors in the national debate over far-reaching changes to the health system has been underlined by international research showing that Australians have a high degree of trust in the medical profession.

In a cautionary finding for the Federal Government as it tries to implement a $7 GP co-payment over the strong objections of the AMA, a study by the International Social Survey Programme has found Australian doctors are well regarded by their patients for the quality of care they provide, and are viewed with trust.

According to the survey, conducted in 29 countries between March 2011 and April 2013, 73 per cent of Australians believed that doctors could be trusted (ranked 10th) and 55 percent were completely or very satisfied with the treatment they received (ranked 4th).

Swiss doctors topped the rankings, earning the trust of 83 per cent of the public and the satisfaction of 64 per cent of their patients. By comparison, 56 per cent of patients in the United States were satisfied with their care (ranked 3rd), but less than 60 per cent thought they could be trusted (ranked 24th). Doctors in Poland were held in the lowest regard (just 43 per cent thought they could be trusted), while their colleagues in Russia were seen as the least satisfactory (only 11 per cent of patients reported they were satisfied with the treatment they received).

Doctors in the US have suffered a sharp decline in public confidence in the past 50 years, according to an analysis in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The discussion cited previous data showing that in 1966, 73 per cent of Americans expressed great confidence in the medical profession, compared with just 34 per cent in 2012. The decline echoed a broader increase in dissatisfaction with the US health system, such that by this year only 23 per cent surveyed by polling company Gallup expressed great or considerable confidence in the system.

The authors of the New England analysis suggested doctors in the US suffered from being seen as contributing to problems with the health system, particularly the cost of care, which 65 per cent of the public regarded as a very serious problem for the country.

The authors of the analysis suggested that, in order to regain the public’s trust, the US medical profession and its leaders “deliberately take visible stands favouring policies that would improve the nation’s health and health care, even if doing so might be disadvantageous to some physicians”.

A similar point was made by Professional Planner editor Simon Hoyle in a piece about the AMA’s advocacy regarding the $7 co-payment (which can be viewed here: ausmed/why-promoting-public-interest-will-win-public%E2%80%99s-trust).

Mr Hoyle said that, in criticising the co-payment, AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler focused on the impact on patients, rather than doctors.

“The impact of a policy may or may not be in the interests of the association’s members, but that is not the association’s first priority,” Mr Hoyle wrote. “The AMA’s first concern is that the healthcare needs of all Australians continue to be met, without favour and without discrimination based on an individual’s ability to pay.

“Of course, in doing that, the interests of the AMA’s members are advanced. But they’re advanced in the context of what’s good for the public interest, not what’s good for the self-interest of doctors.

“Placing the public interest first, and speaking about that, is second nature to a professional association like the AMA. And, for that reason, among others, it’s why governments and regulators alike treat associations such as the AMA seriously, and involve them in the formulation and implementation of public policy.”

Adrian Rollins