by James Kinney
(originally published by MM+M magazine as part of their DE+I Deciphered eBook)
Consumer healthcare is sick and trust is the ever-elusive medicine.
In order for us all to heal, we first need to understand what led us to where we are now.
As a result of COVID-19, governments at the federal, state and local levels are playing roles that they are neither qualified nor prepared to play. Out of lack of resources and perhaps desperation, we have entrusted politicians to decipher medical intelligence, interpret science subjectively, and disseminate sensitive information to the communities they represent.
The analogy that feels appropriate (and perhaps slightly incongruous) here is that we all trust licensed barbers and hairdressers to cut our hair and licensed plumbers to fix our sinks but we would never ask our barber to fix the sink nor trust our plumber to cut our hair. So why have we come to lean on government officials to communicate critical healthcare concerns? The pandemic especially has highlighted how politics have poisoned the healthcare system throughout the entire economic value chain.
Many citizens can’t even discern the healthcare system from government practices as a result of years of government involvement in healthcare practices. The healthcare industry must build proactive community trust between providers and consumers in order to cut out the political middle man.
There are three historical cases I’d like to discuss that potently showcase how governmental interference has created a widespread mistrust of the healthcare industry in consumers.
The HIV AIDS crisis of the 1980s was riddled with discriminatory practices, fear and poorly-executed communication. Before section 504 of the ADA prohibited discriminatory practices against persons with HIV/AIDS, it was known as the “Gay Disease.” The CDC established that HIV/AIDS could not be contracted through casual contact in 1983, yet many religions, schools and local governments leaned into fear instead of science. In 1985, hemophiliac Ryan White had to sue in order to attend school in Indiana. He won his case in court, but passed away in 1990, just five years later. In 1984, Patrick Buchanan, advisor to Richard Nixon, stated “homosexuals have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting a natural retribution.” The memory of these abominable behaviors and their traumatizing remnants still live in the hearts and minds of America’s LGBTQIA+ community.
The Tuskegee Experiment was an unethical syphilis study conducted by the US PHS/CDC between 1932-1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Even though syphilis is treatable, the experiment aimed to explore the outcomes if Black male test subjects went untreated. As a direct result, over 100 men died. The patients were unaware that they were participating in an experiment and the majority of the 600 or so total patients were impoverished sharecroppers. The CDC’s involvement with the Tuskegee Experiment is infamous in the Black community. The generational mistrust of the CDC rooted in Tuskegee and other racially charged unethical practices has led to difficulty getting Black Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 today.
The state of California sterilized more than 20,000 incarcerated women between 1909 and as recent as 2019. Erika Cohn’s film Belly of the Beast tells the story of this unspeakable tragedy wherein nonconsenting women of color were sterilized under the disguise of pap smears and other regular medical examinations. According to University of Michigan researcher Alexandra Mina Stern, California, Virginia and North Carolina all had Eugenics programs designed to sterilize, cleanse or “improve” the human race. Stern notes that California’s barbaric ideology actually influenced Nazi Germany in the early 20th century.
The common thread is abuse of historically silenced communities who identify as female, Black, AAPI, Jewish, LGBTQIA+, etc. leading to a significant and legitimate erosion of trust in the healthcare system. Stemming from government corruption under the guise of healthcare. Minorities can’t just turn off the past. These communities were targeted because of their ease of exploitation and lack of a voice in the public eye. This is why any PR, marketing, advertising and communications messaging must somehow acknowledge this pain. Trust is earned and it can be earned back, but the healthcare industry must distinguish itself decisively against governmental interference as they seek to atone mistakes of the recent past. Healthcare brands must create direct trust and foster connection in the communities they serve in order to create a more equitable and profitable future for companies and consumers alike.