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Survey Says…. Public Trust in Doctors is High for COVID-19 Information

May 20, 2020 07:00AM ● By MED Magazine

When it comes to information about COVID-19, the people of South Dakota trust doctors and public health officials more than other sources. Both rank higher than elected officials or the news media in a new statewide public health survey led by faculty in the joint USD-SDSU Master of Public Health program and USD's Sanford School of Medicine and Department of Psychology.. 

The group launched the Community Impact Survey on March 24th, relying primarily on social media to help spread the word. Within a week, more than 4,000 South Dakotans had responded. By mid-April, that number had climbed to 6,000 with all but a single county represented. 

"We are hoping that this will help us learn how individuals and families are affected by and reacting to the coronavirus pandemic," says Chelsea Wesner, MPH, MSW, of USD's School of Health Sciences. "Our primary goal is to inform public health responses as this pandemic evolves and when a vaccine becomes available."

Wesner says previous health crises suggest that the pandemic has the potential to be devastating to rural and tribal communities, where baseline health may not be as high to start with. They are using the survey responses to help craft effective messages especially for people in underserved areas. 

"If we look back at past outbreaks, the number of fatalities is higher in tribal communities," says Wesner. These communities are also less likely to have easy access to healthcare when residents do get sick. 

"In order to develop effective messaging going forward, it is critical that we understand where people are getting COVID-19 information, their most trusted sources, current behaviors, impact on basic needs and mental health, and their access to healthcare," says Wesner. 

Seventy-two percent of respondents report that they were self-isolating most of the time and 90 percent were supportive of school and business closures. Ninety-three percent said their most trusted source of COVID-19 information is public health officials. Medical doctors came in second at 68 percent. 

"I'm hoping that this information is empowering for doctors and shows them what an important role they play in public health," says Wesner. "People value their opinion much more than they value elected officials and the news media. This really demonstrates that they can play a much larger role than they already do in their communities in shaping health policy and larger public health responses." 

The findings are being shared with the Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center and the South Dakota State Health Department with a view toward developing effective communications both now and in the future. 

"These findings are informing the public health response now, but I think we can use the same findings when a vaccine is available," says Wesner. "We need to be asking what else can we do? How can we plan ahead for when we have a vaccine? Who are people going to trust to share that information and how do we reach them?"

One answer seems to be to involve both public health officials and physicians in the effort.