Patients are increasingly choosing to approach the media, rather than taking a complaint directly to their doctor. If you are contacted by a journalist, it's important to know how to handle the situation appropriately and professionally.
- Exercise caution when dealing with the media.
- Maintain a professional attitude at all times.
- Remember that patient confidentiality comes first.
- Contact the MDU press office for advice.
When might you have to deal with the media?
- A patient has gone directly to the press: patients may approach the media if something has gone wrong with their treatment, and you could be asked for your side of the story.
- You are facing court/GMC proceedings: if you are involved in a legal case with a sufficiently high profile, you could end up in the public eye as a result. Some types of cases, like those concerning alleged sexual misconduct or dishonesty, may attract more attention than others.
- You have a high profile or celebrity patient: if your patient has a noted public profile or status, the media may be interested in you by association. A patient's right to confidentiality must be respected at all times, regardless of who they are.
- Your patient is the subject of a media article or documentary: you still have responsibilities and obligations to your patient even if they have agreed to divulge personal medical information to the media themselves.
What are your priorities?
When dealing with the media, it's important to remember your priority is to your patients and your profession.
The GMC advises in Confidentiality: responding to criticism in the media that your response to the media should usually be limited to explaining your duty of confidentiality. You are legally and ethically bound to respect a patient's confidentiality at all times.
Because of this, doctors are usually unable to give their side of the story. No such constraints are placed on patients when making allegations or statements to the press, and media coverage can often seem very one-sided as a result.
This can be frustrating, but you must remember patient confidentiality comes first.
The GMC's Good medical practice (2013) states that doctors should 'act with integrity' and 'work in partnership with patients'. Keep this in mind when considering your interactions with the press.
Getting into a public dispute can be seen as unprofessional. Clashes between doctors and patients in the media can prolong or even worsen the situation, and may undermine the public's confidence in you and your profession.
What to do if you're approached by the media
If you are approached by the media for any reason, you may find it helpful to follow some basic rules.
- Get the journalist's details. Ask who they are, which outlet they work for and ask for a phone number so you can contact them in your own time.
- Contact the MDU press office. The MDU can help with preparing a response, and may be able to liaise with the press on your behalf.
- Call them back. Journalists are unlikely to go away if you just ignore them, so it's advisable to be in contact even if it's just to say you can't comment because of your duty of confidentiality.
- Always treat journalists as 'on the record'. Be careful what you say, as any comments you make could be used in a story.
It's possible to inadvertently confirm something by denial or omission. Even something as simple as confirming that someone is a patient may breach your legal and ethical obligations.
As well as your comments, the press may want to take your picture to accompany their story.
- Don't 'cover up' – let them take their photo and the photographer will usually leave. Hiding your face or turning away from the camera may also give the impression that you've got something to hide.
- Remember patient confidentiality is key – this must be respected by photographers as well as doctors (for example, if they arrive at your practice).
- Ensure photographers aren't being obstructive – photographers are legally allowed to take pictures on the public highway, but you should make sure patients can't be identified and patient access isn't obstructed.
Making a statement
It's best to keep communication with the press to a minimum. This will help maintain both your professionalism and your duties to your patients.
If you do need to make a statement—for example, if a case against you has concluded in your favour—the MDU's press office can help you draft a suitable response, and can be reached on 020 7202 1535.
Alternatively, call the MDU's medico-legal helpline on 0800 716 646.
This guidance was correct at publication 15/08/2018. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.