In the media spotlight

By Dr Rachel Birch - 21st Feb 2022 | 356 views

Getting approached by the media may happen in your career as a doctor. Dr Rachel Birch, Medico-legal Consultant at Medical Protection, provides the dos and don’ts for doctors who find themselves in the spotlight 

For most doctors, and during ‘normal’ times, getting a call from a journalist would be rare. However, due to Covid-19, the potential to attract media interest may have been greater for some. Unfortunately, alleged lapses in patient care or a poor experience at the practice or hospital are deemed newsworthy, especially when set against the backdrop of resource constraints and pressure on doctors. Occasionally, contact from the media may be the first that some doctors hear of a patient or family member’s grievances. 

The media may also be interested if you are being investigated by the Medical Council, involved in an inquest, or giving evidence at a clinical negligence trial. 

Understandably, dealing with the media can be very daunting for doctors – who generally have no or limited media training – if they are thrust into the public eye, with criticisms directed at their patient care. Journalists can be inventive when attempting to seek comment, as they can try to catch people off-guard in the hope that it will prompt a response. This could be an unexpected phone call or a reporter “doorstopping” a doctor at their home or place of work. Journalists may also seek comment through colleagues, friends or family, and make contact via email and social media. 

If you find yourself in this situation, the following points may help to prepare you for the experience. 

Remain professional 

If approached by a journalist, the first thing you should do is maintain your composure. It is important to appear calm and professional and not say something that you might later regret. 

Avoid saying “no comment”, as this can be perceived as you having something to hide. Rather than providing provisional comments or refusing to engage at all, ask the reporter for further details and tell them you will get back to them. It is a good idea to obtain: 

  • The journalist’s name
  • The name of the publication or the media outlet they work for
  • Exactly what they are asking you to comment on
  • Their deadline
  • Who else they have spoken to
  • Their contact details. 

It is important to remember that there is no such thing as “off the record”. If you do not want to see something in print, it is better to say nothing at all. 

Your medical defence organisation can help in formulating an appropriate response without compromising patient confidentiality, and help the journalist to understand why you are limited in what you can say 

It is also advisable to discuss the issue with your hospital’s press office or medical defence organisation as soon as possible. If appropriate, doctors should inform their colleagues as they may be approached too. 

Seeking media advice 

As most doctors are unlikely to have received media training, informing your medical defence organisation, such as Medical Protection, from the outset is particularly important – even if you feel like you can deal with the query on your own. The medico-legal expert dealing with your case will be able to proactively engage the press office and any instructed lawyers required to respond to the query. 

Medical Protection’s press office is available to our members 24-hours, seven days a week, has expertise in dealing with the press and will be able to provide specific advice and support relating to your situation. They may also liaise with the journalist on your behalf, assist you to develop a press statement, issue it to the journalist, and monitor press activity. 

Duty of confidentiality 

It will of course be tempting to tell your side of the story, especially if you feel as though you have been cast in a negative light or if the information that has been provided is inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading. However, you must remember that you have an ethical obligation to follow the Medical Council’s Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners and that you have a professional duty to protect the patient’s right to confidentiality. 

Commenting on any specifics relating to your patient’s care is considered to be a breach of confidentiality and could lead to a complaint, disciplinary action, or regulatory sanction. Remember that even the fact that a patient is registered at your practice or has received treatment in hospital is confidential information. Whether or not a patient informs you of their consent for you to provide a comment about their care, it is usually remains inappropriate to do so in a public forum. 

You may wish to keep contemporaneous records of all dealings with the press, as they could assist in defending your actions if you receive a complaint about any information you disclose later. 

What can you say? 

It is a good idea to begin by liaising with others involved in the patient’s care to agree on the approach and key messages. Any comments or statement you provide should be short and factual, while not compromising patient confidentiality. News articles have a word count limit and lengthy statements are likely to be edited, which could distort the meaning or alter the emphasis of your statement. As a guide, statements should be no more than 150 words, using plain language that cannot be misconstrued or taken out of context. 

A standard statement may explain in general terms that you have a professional duty to maintain patient confidentiality and cannot comment further. Depending on the circumstances, it may also be appropriate to offer condolences to the patient’s family. 

You may also wish to make other comments, for example, a reassurance that you always strive to provide the best possible care or that you have learnt from the experience. However, be careful of not breaching patient confidentiality when doing so. 

Your medical defence organisation can help in formulating an appropriate response without compromising patient confidentiality, and help the journalist to understand why you are limited in what you can say. 

Photographs 

It is possible that you may be confronted by a photographer or camera crew outside your home, place of work or at a hearing in which you may be involved. It is likely that they want to obtain an image of you to go alongside any news article published about you, so it is important to maintain your professional composure. Do not cover your face or appear angry, but avoid smiling as this could also give the wrong impression. 

It is also a good idea to alert any colleagues to the presence of photographers as soon as possible so they can ensure that steps are taken to protect the confidentiality of other patients. 

Journalists, especially from the tabloids, may also download photos from your personal social media pages and publish them in the media. It would be prudent for you to adjust your privacy settings so that your personal information and photos are not easily accessible by people outside your social network. 

Regardless of why the media is interested in your professional life, it can be a very stressful and traumatic experience. Above all, try to remain professional when dealing with the issue, continue to provide your patients with the best care possible, and remember you are not alone – your medical defence organisation is there for support.

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