Doctors subject to criticism in the press

Doctors subject to criticism in the press - The MDU

A journalist invites you to 'give your side of the story'. What would you do?

Doctors who have found themselves subject to unfair criticism in the press may have allowed themselves a rueful smile when the Leveson Inquiry put the ethics and behaviour of journalists under the microscope.

It remains to be seen whether newspaper proprietors will eventually accept the terms of the royal charter intended to regulate the press. In the meantime, MDU has seen a small drop in the number of members contacting the press office, and in 2013, a total of 123 members called after being contacted by a reporter or faced with a patient's threat to go to the newspapers.

Doctors in this situation are understandably upset about the potential damage to their reputation and keen to give their side of the story. As one consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist explained: "The article appeared in a national newspaper over the weekend but it wasn't brought to our attention until Monday morning as the journalist had not contacted us. The story was very negative, implying we were responsible for something that was totally outside our control. It felt very unfair and we really wanted to make a statement."

The problem for doctors is that any attempt to counter unfair allegations in the media generally requires you to comment on your diagnosis or treatment, thereby breaching patient confidentially and inviting censure. Even if the patient has put their own medical information in the public domain, the GMC says this does not relieve you of your duty of confidentiality. In Confidentiality: responding to criticism in the press (2009) it says, "If you deny allegations that appear in the press, 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."

Unfortunately this means the story is likely to be infuriatingly one-sided but another factor to bear in mind is that offering any response can simply give the story added momentum. An apparently solicitous journalist may contact you with the opportunity to "give your side of the story" but they have a professional obligation to do so and it is in their interests to maximise the story and keep their by-line in the public eye for longer.

As the GMC observes: "Disputes between patients and doctors conducted in the media often serve no practical purpose; they can prolong or intensify conflict and may undermine public confidence in the profession." Instead, the best approach is usually to explain that you cannot comment because of your duty of patient confidentiality. Some journalists could try to provoke you into saying more but it's worth asking yourself who really benefits: them or you?

The consultant mentioned above acknowledges she was initially extremely frustrated when advised by the MDU press office not to make any public comment on the newspaper story. With hindsight she recognised this approach made sense. "It was counterintuitive. I mean you naturally want to defend your standards of care and it felt like we were sitting on our hands - but it worked because we gave the journalist nothing to work with and the story died down."

The member added: "Any doctor will tell you that situations like this are distressing and can really affect you, so having an organisation like the MDU on your side really helps you get through it."

Five tips

  1. A journalist is unlikely to just go away so don't ignore their call. 
  2. Contact the MDU press office for advice, especially if you think you want to make a statement.
  3. Don't make off-the-cuff remarks or comments which might breach patient confidentiality.
  4. If a photographer tries to take your picture, allow them to do so. Ducking or covering your face will make it look as if you have something to hide.
  5. Ensure patients cannot be identified by any photography. If a film crew is present, make sure they do not obstruct patient access.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 MDU journal entitled "Hold the front page"

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