Dealing with the press

WALL-to-wall coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has put health professionals squarely in the media spotlight – and it may seem helpful and straightforward enough to engage with the press but MDDUS urges caution.

"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 and dentists to be approached by journalists for their views on the situation.

News organisations might be looking for medical opinions or asking about PPE shortages, or seeking comment on a particular patient. It may seem helpful and straightforward enough in certain scenarios to engage with such requests but healthcare professionals are often uncertain or unaware of what might land them in trouble if they do respond. At MDDUS we have seen an increase in queries relating to this subject. Here we offer some key points to consider when faced with such requests.

Handling media enquiries

Working as a healthcare professional in the frontline of the pandemic means that the comments you make in the media 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 the opportunity to check your employer’s 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with a journalist as they may record and publish anything you say – even if you warn them that your comments are not for publication or attribution.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

An increasingly popular feature in news programmes are interviews with recovered COIVD-19 patients alongside the doctor or nurse who treated them while unwell in hospital. Such real-life "survival" stories can be reassuring and hopeful but they also come with risks to the healthcare professional being interviewed. Seek approval from your employing organisation before engaging in such news features. The patient may have given consent to have their story published or broadcast but you should only share information which is in line with the consent provided.

The GMC offers some specific guidance to 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." Similar advice for dental professionals can be found in the GDC’s Standards for the dental team.

Even confirming that a patient is currently under your care will breach patient confidentiality and trust in you as a medical or dental 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

Medical and dental 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. MDDUS is aware of some challenging questions from journalists regarding individual competency, particularly when staff have been deployed in settings beyond 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 significant legal 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 employer will have health and safety procedures or policies, which you are obliged to follow, and any concerns should be reported without unnecessary delay. Only when formal procedures have been exhausted and you are in no doubt that there is immediate cause for concern, should you escalate or make your concerns public.

GMC ethical guidance on 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 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.

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.
  • Seek advice from your employing organisation and MDDUS if you are unsure what action to take.
  • Be clear on regulatory guidance on confidentiality and responding to the media.

Click here from more MDDUS advice: Engaging with the media

Kay Louise Grant is a risk adviser at MDDUS

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