Patient Care and Trust: What Premedical Students Should Know

Trust is a popular concept cited by medical school hopefuls in their applications or during the med school interview. It’s understandable that aspiring doctors want to show that they have what it takes to earn the trust of patients. After all, we know that trust is a pillar of the patient-doctor relationship.

Yet while most of us have a broad grasp of what trust is and how it relates to patient care, defining it in concrete terms and understanding how to cultivate it can be more challenging. Developing a more tangible understanding of the concept of trust will allow med school applicants to discuss it more clearly in applications and help them work toward becoming more adept at cultivating it.

What Is Trust?

If you plan to attend medical school, before you read further, consider what trust means to you, especially as it relates to the patient-doctor relationship. Have you had clinical volunteer or shadowing experiences as a premed where you saw trust between the doctor and patient? Or have you ever sought medical care yourself and placed trust in your physician? In these contexts, how would you define trust?

Even among scholars, there is not consensus on the definition of trust. Here’s one proposed definition that may serve as a framework for understanding the concept: “Trust is the confident belief based on possibly tenuous evidence that others can be believed to act with goodwill,” Michele Ann Carter wrote in a 1989 dissertation at the University of Tennessee.

[Read: How to Become a Doctor: A Step-by Step Guide.]

Building on this definition, Mark A. Hall at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and several colleagues later examined trust in the medical profession in an article about the topic. They wrote that in medicine, trust comes from a place of vulnerability. People who go to a doctor are inherently vulnerable because they are ill or concerned about illness.

The writers pointed out that at its core, trust is about a patient in a vulnerable state having a positive, optimistic attitude toward a doctor’s abilities and intentions.

In an encounter with a physician, the patient is almost always less knowledgeable about their illness than the doctor is. As a result, the patient cannot know with absolute certainty that the physician is making an accurate diagnosis or providing the best treatment, or that the physician is acting with goodwill. Yet the patient must place their faith in the doctor in the presence of incomplete evidence, believing that the doctor has the knowledge and goodwill to act in their best interest.

How to Become Better at Earning Patients’ Trust

Though it may seem like a long way away, it’s not too early to cultivate the skills needed to build trust with patients even when you are a premed student. By developing an understanding of how trust is built between a patient and physician, you can begin to hone this skill. In doing so, you will also sound more sophisticated as you discuss this topic in your medical school applications.

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There is a body of literature on different approaches that can foster trust between patients and their doctors. For example, the way physicians communicate seems to influence how much patients trust them. By speaking to patients in clear language and thoroughly explaining their condition, doctors can earn their trust.

Arguably, an even more important element of communication is the ability to listen to patients and hear their concerns.

Honing your communication skills is a great way to develop the foundation for establishing trusting relationships as a future physician. Find opportunities that afford you the chance to practice communication, such as teaching or tutoring.

Leadership experience also helps build communication skills. Good leaders have to effectively communicate their vision to the people they lead and inspire them. By becoming involved in campus clubs, nonprofit organizations or community service projects that offer leadership opportunities, you can practice engaging with others and further build these skills.

As you hone such skills, try to also become better at active listening. Clinical volunteer experiences are a great opportunity to interact with patients and learn how to intently listen with the goal of understanding their needs.

Many times, premed students enter interactions with patients determined to talk to patients to cheer them up. Giving the patient a chance to speak by asking open-ended questions and taking time to listen may be an even more effective way to build a connection and help patients feel cared for.

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Taking real interest in patients’ lives and listening to understand their needs is a way to show respect and to uphold their dignity. Though listening may sound like a trivial skill, becoming a truly active listener requires effort and practice.

How to Discuss Trust in the Med School Application

When you talk about building trust with patients in your medical school essays or an interview, think about what the concept means to you instead of memorizing a textbook definition. Consider what elements, in your view, are key to building trust. Don’t be afraid to share those elements and delineate clearly what steps you take to earn the trust of others.

Also, make sure to draw on your specific experiences in the health care setting or elsewhere that have taught you how to build trusting relationships.

During a medical school interview, you may be asked to navigate a hypothetical situation where you are required to talk a reluctant patient into accepting a recommended treatment, or work with a difficult person to achieve a common goal. In all of these situations, building trust is key, so it’s important to show that you are aware of its importance and delineate exactly how you would go about establishing it with others.

The insight that you show into this topic can make you sound more informed, mature and prepared to embark on a career in medicine. Furthermore, an understanding of the concept of trust will allow you to build consensus with peers as an aspiring physician and enhance your chances of success as a premed and future medical student.

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Patient Care and Trust: What Premedical Students Should Know originally appeared on

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