Three Ways Healthcare Associations Can Build Trust

Published Online for the American Society of Association Executives
February 1, 2019

By Nicolette Haton

According to ASAE’s ForesightWorks research, trust in institutions, including government, science, and medicine, is declining.

Among healthcare association professionals, public perception of trust is a concern. Healthcare associations, in particular, have an important role in cultivating trust with members and the public. Whether it’s a national emergency or outbreak, a debate over evidence-based research, or individuals in healthcare upholding standards of conduct, healthcare associations can be in the spotlight for how they react to situations of mistrust.

In Association Laboratory’s Looking Forward 2019 research (to be released in March 2019), the following was identified:

  • 60 percent of healthcare association chief staff officer respondents were concerned or somewhat concerned about their association’s perception as a source of credible information.
  • 52 percent of healthcare chief staff officer respondents were concerned or somewhat concerned about public perceptions of their members’ competence or quality.

Overall, distinguishing between fact and fiction is getting more difficult, and opinions are becoming even more polarized.

“We live in an era of personalized facts; if you believe something, it is true, and this is replacing evidence-based facts,” said Endocrine Society CEO Barbara Byrd Keenan, FASAE, CAE.

This is an environment drastically different from 50 years ago. With the massive amounts of information at their fingertips, the public has not evolved yet to critically screen this information to determine what, or who, is relevant and trustworthy. 

“The level of trust for individual opinion has gotten greater, so far in as one might trust their neighbor over a doctor,” said Mike Tringale, vice president, communications and public affairs, for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

Because of this, healthcare associations are having to find more ways to demonstrate a trusting environment to their members as well as the public. While this may involve any number of strategies, here are three specific areas the groups are seeing deliver the most success:  

Take action. Healthcare associations must know their audience, both members and the public, to be able to see gaps and opportunities with trust. This begins with strategic, forward-thinking conversations. Trust is not created in one singular action, but with a combination of many, and it also involves engaging not only executive leaders but also staff, volunteers, members, and the public in the process.

“The organization must redefine what trust means and deliver on its promises,” said Patricia Blake, FASAE, CAE, former CEO of the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy (ASGE). These promises could be in the form of benefits, public awareness campaigns, subject matter experts, board or committee representation, and so forth.

Through ASGE’s conversations, one of several promises it’s delivering on is ensuring a strong conflict of interest statement [PDF] is made public. For the medical industry, this is particularly important so that leaders and subject matter experts are identified as trusted experts within the industry.

Make it Easy to Find Credible Information. Because people are using search engines like Google to find healthcare information, “your organization needs to go where they are going,” said Keenan.

This means embracing search engines and being part of the vetting and ranking process for quality content by using search engine optimization. Optimizing your association’s credible research and resources so that they are seen first among the thousands of returned results is critical in establishing trust with members and the public. “The association has to be able to help guide [consumers] to the right choices,” said Tringale.  

For example, the American Dental Association is working hard to disseminate critical information to the public about the dangers of do-it-yourself (DIY) dental kits, according to Conor McNulty, CAE, executive director of the Oregon Dental Association. To start, ADA adopted a policy which discourages DIY dental kit use and then ran a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal about it.

Establish effective partnerships. By partnering or working with similar organizations, institutions, or coalitions, healthcare associations can be seen as a trusted advisor that unites with likeminded groups. Looking Forward 2019 also shows that 54 percent of healthcare association chief staff officers indicated their association would be working with other associations to expand audience reach. For example, the Endocrine Society quickly stepped in, alongside the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and partnered with Insulin for Life (IFL) to deliver Type 1 diabetes medication during relief efforts following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Since healthcare is a rapidly changing industry, associations that are proactive, rather than reactive, will create a more trusting organization prepared to address future challenges.

Nicolette L. Haton, MBA, CAE, is an analyst at Association Laboratory in Chicago and a member of ASAE’s Healthcare Community Committee. Email: