In the long and complicated history of women’s health, few stories are more infamous than that of Henrietta Lacks.
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, went to see doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital because of unexplained vaginal bleeding. George Gey, MD, diagnosed her with a highly aggressive form of cervical cancer. During radium treatment at the hospital, researchers took a sample of her cancer cells without her consent and sent them to a lab for testing. Henrietta Lacks passed away a few months later, but her cells lived on in cultures at the hospital.
Lacks’s cells became the first immortal line of cells ever grown in culture. Whereas most cells cultured from other human cells only survived for a few days, Lacks’s doubled every 24 to 48 hours. Her cells, known as HeLa cells, helped scientists lay the foundation for much of what we know about viruses, cloning, gene mapping, and space travel. They were also instrumental in the creation of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines. However, Lacks’s family didn’t know Johns Hopkins researchers took her cells and used them in medical research, nor that they sold them in vials, until 25 years after she passed.
Henrietta Lacks’ story is often cited as a reason for mistrust of the medical community by African-Americans and highlights a paramount concern in women’s health today: how to foster trust between patients and their physicians.
Women of color and in low-income areas often face discrimination in a healthcare setting, and this can impact their trust in their providers and the healthcare system as a whole. A good patient-provider relationship may lead to better health outcomes because patients who trust their physicians are more likely to see them regularly, adhere to their treatment plan, and follow up with them regarding their care.
How Providers Can Nurture the Patient-Provider Relationship
1. Practice Sensitivity to Cultural and Social Differences
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black, Native American, and Alaska Native women 30 and older are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
One way physicians can build trust is to demonstrate empathy to patients through patient-centered communication. Patient-centered communication places the patient’s needs at the focus of their care. According to a study published in the American Academy of Family Physicians, 70 percent of patients prefer patient-centered communication when meeting with their physicians. On average, physicians interrupt a patient within 16 seconds of starting a conversation. Redirecting a patient, rather than interrupting, can help guide the conversation. Physicians should endeavor to not interrupt the patient or rush them during the visit, encouraging them instead to fully understand their situation and share in decision-making regarding their care.
2. Use the Right Technology
Integrating technology specific to women’s health needs with your electronic health record (EHR) can help you provide high-quality care at the right time while reducing healthcare expenditures and the risk of burnout. For example, the Dorsata platform allows physicians to chart directly in the EHR following the American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology (ACOG) guidelines.
Similar services and technologies can help physicians document births, annual wellness visits, and lab work that save physicians time. Ultimately, the appropriate technology can enable physicians to spend more time with their patients during visits, rather than the computer screen.
3. Enhance the Patient Experience
The issue of a patient’s trust in her physician doesn’t lose its relevance once the visit is over and the patient has left the office. External communication is also important. Appointment reminders, accessible care, checking on the patient after childbirth or surgery, and patient education resources can help increase the quality of care for the patient. Having an effective external communication strategy can increase a patient’s trust in your practice, and help your practice build a patient-centered reputation.
Building stronger patient interactions can also reduce physician burnout. Reducing time-consuming administrative tasks that detract from patient visits by utilizing technology or services, such as an integrated EHR or a virtual scribe, can allow you to build a stronger relationship with your patients. Taking just one minute to talk directly with a patient can make a difference in their perception of your practice. By building a relationship with their patients, women’s health physicians may make a tremendous impact on their patients’ care.