Dealing with the press

Risk adviser Kay Louise Grant offers advice on responding to media requests

"NORMAL" no longer exists – or at least not the normal we knew before COVID-19. So it’s hardly surprising that many of us are spending an inordinate amount of screen time seeking advice and answers via a constant reel of news and social media. It has also become more likely for doctors to be approached by journalists for their views on the situation.

News organisations might be looking for opinions on specific medical issues or concerns, such as PPE shortages. They might also be seeking comments on a particular patient. It may seem helpful and straightforward enough in certain scenarios to engage with such requests, but healthcare professionals need to be aware of the issues that might land them in trouble if they do respond. At MDDUS we have seen an increase in queries related to engaging with the media. Here we offer some key points to consider when faced with such requests.

Handling media enquiries

Responding to requests from the media as a healthcare professional can have far-reaching consequences. There is always a risk of breaching patient confidentiality, organisational policies or your contract of employment, in addition to potentially damaging your professional reputation. It is important to take some time to consider your options. Doing so will reduce the risk of saying the "wrong" thing – or may allow you to conclude that it’s best to say nothing at all.

Should a journalist make contact and you feel qualified and willing to engage in principle, ask what deadline they are working to and then take their contact details to get back in touch at a later time. This will provide you with the opportunity to liaise with the healthcare organisation you are working for to check their position on dealing with press and media enquiries. Most large organisations will have a policy and also a press officer who is trained to deal with such requests. You may want to signpost the journalist directly to a press office. Avoid being drawn into any kind of "off the record" discussion with a journalist as they may record and publish anything you say – even if you warn them that your comments are not for publication or attribution. Seek advice from MDDUS if you feel unsupported or at all uncertain in dealing with a press enquiry.

Patient confidentiality

In engaging with the media, it is essential that healthcare professionals do not breach their duty of confidentiality to patients. The GMC offers specific guidance on responding to the media, stressing the importance of maintaining patient confidentiality. The guidance (Confidentiality: responding to criticism in the media) states that if approached for comment on a patient’s condition or any aspect of their care: "You should usually limit your public response to an explanation of your legal and professional duty of confidentiality."

An increasingly popular feature in news programmes is interviews with patients who have recovered from COVID-19 alongside the doctor or nurse who treated them while unwell in hospital. Such real-life "survival" stories can be reassuring and positive but may come with risks to the healthcare professional being interviewed. Seek approval from your organisation before engaging in such news features. You should not provide information about a patient without their explicit consent. Be aware that although the patient may have agreed to have their story published or broadcast, you should only share information that the patient has consented to being disclosed by you.

Even confirming without consent that a patient is currently under your care will breach patient confidentiality and can undermine trust in you as a medical professional. This can be a particular issue with 'high-profile' or celebrity patients being treated at hospital, with journalists and photographers seeking information or photographs.

Measured response

Healthcare staff must also be mindful of the obligation to remain professional at all times and to not bring themselves, their organisation or the profession into disrepute. We recommend exercising caution when answering questions, keeping in mind that journalists may have a particular angle for their piece and will likely be trying to obtain an interesting quote. For example, MDDUS is aware of cases where healthcare professionals have been presented with challenging questions about their competence when being deployed in settings outside of their normal field of practice. We recognise that this can be very frustrating and that you may want to respond promptly to defend your position. However, it is important to take time to carefully consider the terms of any response you do wish to make, taking account of the advice outlined above.

Seek advice from within your organisation or from MDDUS on the most appropriate response.

Raising concerns

Another reason that healthcare professionals might proactively engage with the media is to raise concerns about unsafe working practices relating to patients, themselves and their colleagues.

Both employers and employees have obligations in regard to health and safety at work. Employers must take all reasonable steps to provide a safe workplace, and employees have a duty to report hazards and associated risks that they identify. Your organisation will have health and safety procedures or policies, which you are obliged to follow, and any concerns should be reported without unnecessary delay. Healthcare professionals also have obligations to raise concerns where they believe patient safety is being compromised. The GMC guidance Raising and acting on concerns about patient safety emphasises that you should follow your organisation's policy for reporting concerns. Escalating your concern to the media should be a last resort, only to be considered when all other avenues have been exhausted and there remains an immediate concern about a significant risk. We would recommend seeking advice from the MDDUS before taking this step.

GMC ethical guidance Raising and acting on concerns about patient safety states:

You can consider making your concerns public if you:

a. have done all you can to deal with any concern by raising it within the organisation in which you work or which you have a contract with, or with the appropriate external body, and

b. have good reason to believe that patients are still at risk of harm, and

c. do not breach patient confidentiality.

But, you should get advice before making a decision of this kind.

 

Action points

  • Enquiring journalists should be asked for contact details and told that someone will be back in touch.
  • Check your organisation’s policy on dealing with the media. Is there a press officer to whom such enquiries could be directed?
  • Avoid being drawn into discussion with journalists, as anything you say may end up in print or broadcast.
  • Ensure that you do not breach patient confidentiality.
  • Be clear on regulatory guidance on confidentiality and responding to the media.
  • Seek advice from your organisation and MDDUS if you are unsure what action to take.
  • Click here for more MDDUS advice: Engaging with the media