When was the last time you trusted someone or something?

Do you equate trust as something you give to a loved one – your partner, your family, your dog? If you do, you aren’t alone. The reality, however, is that trust drives many, if not all, of the decisions in our lives. Let’s take what you’re doing right now…

You trust your device will stay connected to the internet. Maybe you just woke up and you’re grabbing that first cup of coffee. You trust that when you hit the “on” button you will be rewarded with the sound and smell of a freshly brewed cup. But what happens to trust when your device doesn’t connect to the internet or when coffee grinds somehow make their way into your cup of coffee? What if it happens over and over again?

The short answer: They are judged unreliable—and in some cases, untrustworthy.

The same lack of trust can happen in research. The inherent power imbalance and poor judgment some researchers have exercised in the past have weakened the trust dynamic that should exist between researchers and communities. Poor treatment from health systems and historical research abuses have also effectively severed the ties of trust with some communities, most often those that are underserved already. It should come as no surprise that some within minority communities view researchers with skepticism and mistrust.

What if the burden of being trustworthy were placed not on the community, but on us researchers?  Dr. Consuelo Wilkins writes about this and ways to improve trustworthiness in an editorial for Medical Care. She believes that the first step in connecting with minority populations is rebuilding trust.

But how does one rebuild trust? As a researcher is it enough to just mind your “ps and qs,” hold the door open for the person behind you, and not be rude before you’ve had your morning coffee?  What are some concrete steps we can take to help rebuild trust in researchers? Are you empathetic? Do you value the knowledge and perspectives others bring to the table?  How do you show understanding while being true to evidence-based and empirical academic methodology? Are you open to sharing the investigator role with communities, in a way that really promotes their meaningful involvement?

Dr. Wilkins reminds us that research with human participants is more about the bonds we form and the return of value we provide than the papers we write. Through Dr. Wilkins’ article we are reminded that as researchers, we are eternal learners—and we should seek lessons from the communities we hope to engage. These lessons, you’ll find, are as important (or far more important) than any of the learning objectives listed on the syllabi you never read until finals week.

Check out this 3-minute video that sums up some of Wilkins’ discussion (Effective Engagement Requires Trust Video):

https://pmforallpeople.org/our_work/implementation-core/

Dr. Wilkins’ editorial in Medical Care:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6143205/

The research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health (NIMHD) under award number U54MD010722. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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2 Comments
Carey Szetela says:

The challenges of COVID-19 have really highlighted the need for researchers and the entire enterprise of science to demonstrate they are trustworthy.  There are so many variables to what makes people trust research, to who ‘pays the price’, and to who benefits.

David Crenshaw says:

Dr. Szetela, your observation is quite timely.  The burden of being trustworthy seems higher than before, given an awareness of the self serving nature of large pharmaceutical companies and even more pressing, the apparent politicalization of government entities such as the Centers for Disease Control. 
As a research project manager I speak with research participants on an almost daily basis, and am used to being meet with skepticism – but also an altruistic desire to help.  To live up to the altruistic motivation of most research participants we must find ways of better communication.  A simple place to start is the language of the consent document.  We must strive to impart a clearer understanding of the research process so that participants have a solid understanding of their role, and our goals and obligations as researchers.

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