Caught in the media spotlight

Dealing with the press can be stressful for anybody – but for doctors and other healthcare professionals it can be particularly tricky

 

FEW people relish being the focus of media attention – or at least the “wrong” kind. Members frequently call MDDUS for advice after having read or seen reports about their practice in the press.

Critical comments from patients may be reported with emotive and provocative headlines, or the reporting may be the result of medical inquiries or investigative journalism with misquotes or misrepresentations of a member’s actions or opinions. We have all seen headlines such as: ‘Scandal at local hospital as thousands of patients at risk’ and ‘Local GPs putting patients at risk’.

In the past this type of media criticism was limited to the printed press or TV reporting but the internet has opened up multiple platforms. Facebook is now commonly used by patients to report their experiences, with video, audio and photographs posted to support their point of view.

Medical professionals are likely to be distressed and worried by this type of public condemnation where only one side of a story is represented. This is particularly the case when the piece is highly subjective, misleading or inaccurate. Indeed, some articles may be wholly inaccurate. Members are concerned about their professional reputation and the fact that when issues are raised in public it is difficult to respond because of the constraints of confidentiality and professional ethics.

When you are on the receiving end of such criticism it can be very difficult to know how best to react and respond. Each situation is different but sometimes the best course of action is to say nothing, even if there are inaccuracies in the article or report. If the matter involves a hospital or healthcare organisation, they will determine how best to reply and may wish to have input from any staff member involved. For complex cases, we advise that you speak to MDDUS, especially if there may be wider issues such as an internal investigation.

Considering an appropriate response can be challenging. If the issue is one of an individual patient/relative you may be able to address this with them directly (without disclosing any confidential information publicly). Any discussion should be around the appropriateness – or otherwise – of what has been raised and the individual should be advised of the channels available to them if they wish to complain.

Caution must be exercised in engaging directly with the press or a media organisation. You must not disclose any confidential information directly relating to patients and this includes indirect disclosures made accidentally by inference or omission. Be aware that casual conversation can lead to inadvertent disclosures and these could amount to a breach of confidentiality if a patient is identifiable from the material you reveal. Take advice from MDDUS if you are considering speaking to the press to ensure you act in line with professional ethical guidance.

In some circumstances you may be able to provide general information about your practice. For example, if a complaint is made public alleging poor hygiene practices, you can confirm that you adhere to national guidelines and have up-to-date confirmation of your standards. But there is no need to respond on the spot. You can ask the journalist for contact details and their deadline and then take time to consider your response – and contact MDDUS if you are unsure. However, individual patient specific information must not be disclosed.

The GMC also addresses the issue of dealing with the media in its recently updated guidance on confidentiality and in the explanatory document Responding to criticism in the media. Doctors are advised: “… from time to time, media reports or social media discussions might cause patients to be concerned about your practice, or that of a health service you are associated with. In such cases it may be appropriate to give general information about your normal practice. You must be careful not to reveal personal information about a patient, or to give an account of their care, without their consent. If you deny allegations that appear in public media, you must be careful not to reveal, directly or by omission or inference, any more personal information about the patient than a simple denial demands.”

In summary, individual criticism from a patient should be addressed directly, if appropriate, through the usual complaints process. Wider media criticism cannot be addressed directly in a public forum if to do so would beach confidentiality, but there may be cases where limited general information can be provided, so long as that does not breach the confidentiality of any individual. Talking to the press can be risky and it is better to seek advice from MDDUS to discuss concerns and how best to approach the problem.

ACTION POINTS

  • Be aware of the risk of breach of confidentiality and be cautious in any dealings with the media.
  • Discuss your concerns with MDDUS to obtain an objective view and advice about up-to-date professional guidance.

Dr Gail Gilmartin is a medical and risk adviser at MDDUS