To be sure, on Facebook, the hospital’s blunder was brought up by several critics: “I am sorry for the family and their loss,” Pam Loh-Stuck wrote. “It's too bad he couldn't have been sent to Atlanta or Omaha where they know how to treat this deadly disease ... I hope the family sues the hospital and the city for the way they were treated.”
But surprisingly, the detractors were matched by a robust group of supporters.
“I have been treated at that hospital,” wrote Paul Adams in response. “The staff are consummate professionals and I am sure with the eyes of the whole world watching they did everything they could to keep him alive.”
The hospital had also bungled its explanation for Duncan’s ordeal, first blaming the mistake on their electronic health record, and then directly reversing that claim.
As Dallas Morning News editorial writer Tod Robberson pointed out, “At least one person possessed information crucial to a patient’s survival ... Thousands of people have survived Ebola, and Duncan should have been among them.”
This did not faze a woman named Barbie Monte, who wrote on the hospital’s page:
“Thank you for the services you provide! God will see your facility through the ridiculous finger pointing and rude comments! Good job!”
I’m sure there are a few naked-selfie-sending politicians out there who would kill for this hospital’s Facebook fanbase.
So why are people so sympathetic to a hospital that made an egregious—and possibly fatal—error involving a highly contagious virus?
Whether deserved or not, medical workers are often crested with a moral halo, as anyone who watches TV dramas or follows celebrity physicians like Dr. Oz probably knows. Nurses, doctors, and pharmacists regularly rank in the top five “most trusted” professions in the U.S., according to an annual Gallup poll. (The other two are soldiers and elementary-school teachers.) People trust their doctors even if they’ve been harmed by them, and they’re less likely to spend time vetting a new surgeon than they are a new employer or new car.
The rise of online health portals hasn’t shaken the public’s confidence in physicians. A 2010 New England Journal of Medicine survey of 16,000 people over seven years found that as the Internet became more popular, people trusted doctors more and the Internet less.
Medicine is expensive, and studies show people—sometimes irrationally—overvalue costly goods and services. You spent thousands getting Grandma’s tumor treated at Presbyterian, so why besmirch the place now?
Harvard professor Francesca Gino has shown that people are more likely to take advice that they’ve paid for. She’s also found that when we feel anxious—like, say, about Ebola—we’re more likely to seek out and take others’ advice. Medical advice happens to be something that’s pricey and worry-inducing enough to go unquestioned.