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How to ... Handle questions from the media

Take care not to breach patients' confidentiality if talking to a journalist. By Dr Samantha Godwin

A call from a local newspaper journalist was put through to a GP at his surgery. The journalist said he was investigating a story that a patient had been removed from the practice list for missing an appointment, and that the patient had accused the GP of not taking her health problems seriously.

Always take advice before talking to a journalist on patient issues

Taken off-guard, the GP responded that the patient had failed to turn up for several appointments. He confided 'off the record' that the patient was 'quite difficult' and not to be taken seriously.

The newspaper later ran a story about a 'heartless GP' who abandoned a frail patient and mocked her health problems.

In the spotlight
This fictional case, based on calls to the MDU, illustrates what can go wrong if a doctor makes a misjudgment when talking to a journalist.

Health stories usually have a good human interest angle which makes them particularly attractive to the media. So there is a greater chance that GPs will find themselves fielding a call from a journalist about a patient. Consider how you would cope.

Stay calm
The first law of dealing with journalists is 'don't panic'. They are unlikely to have a personal grudge against you or your practice and have a professional obligation to give you the opportunity to respond.

There is no need to respond immediately. Instead, take their name, contact details and deadline and tell them you will call back.

However, it would be a mistake to ignore an approach altogether. Journalists have deadlines to meet so extend them the professional courtesy of calling back as promised, after taking appropriate advice.

Seek advice
Contact your medical defence organisation for help if a journalist is asking about a patient or any issue you feel uncomfortable about.

Every year the MDU press office helps hundreds of our members who find themselves in the media spotlight. Often this relates to ongoing investigations such as GMC cases. Members can be advised in advance of what they should say or do if approached.

Occasionally calls come out of the blue and, in a few cases, members have been 'door-stepped' at work or home by a journalist and photographer.

Your defence organisation can discuss what (and what not) to say. If appropriate it may take over dealing with the media on your behalf. However this may appear defensive and a call from a doctor's defence organisation may further pique a journalist's curiosity.

If asked to comment
  • Call back rather than respond immediately.
  • Take advice from your medical defence body if contacted about a patient or an issue you are not comfortable with.
  • Even confirming or denying a person is your practice's patient may breach their confidentiality.
  • You are 'on the record' unless the journalist says you are not.
  • Obtaining a correction or clarification may only serve to keep the matter in the public eye.

Maintain confidentiality
Your duty of confidentiality prevents you from disclosing any details of a patient's condition or treatment, even if a patient puts their medical details into the public domain. This duty also applies to deceased patients.

Even confirming that someone is a patient might breach confidentiality.

You might wish to issue a firm rebuttal to an unfair, ill-informed or vexatious accusation, but to do so would frequently involve a breach of confidentiality.

Explain that you are unable to comment because of your duty of confidentiality which prevents you from even confirming or denying that the person is your patient.

On occasion, a journalist will present a signed statement from a patient that they have no objection to their GP talking about their case. However the patient's consent cannot be valid unless they know exactly what information will be disclosed, the way it will be used and the possible consequences.

If the patient objects to what you say, their signed consent is irrelevant.

Off the record
Politicians and celebrities who have found their 'off the record' comments attributed to them are legion.

Remember that unless they say otherwise, journalists are on the record from the moment they contact you or your surgery. Everything you or your staff say can be quoted on the record, so beware making off-the-cuff remarks or confirming any details that could breach a patient's confidentiality.

Photos and filming
If a photographer or broadcaster attempts to photograph or film you, resist the temptation to cover your face or turn away as this may give the impression you have something to hide.

Allowing photographers to take a picture or film you will enable you to look professional in the resulting images.

If filming takes place at your surgery, ask the media crew to move away from the entrance and point out that they should not obstruct patients entering or leaving, or take pictures of them.

Complaints or corrections
If your clinical practice is misrepresented it is natural to want to seek a correction, clarification and/or apology. Unfortunately this may prove difficult for the same reasons of confidentiality which prevented you from commenting in the first place: you will be unable to give the correct version of events.

Also, a correction or letter to the editor may simply keep the story and the allegations in the spotlight for longer.

Where a story is factually incorrect, for example, cases of mistaken identity, most newspapers are happy to rectify the problem. However, if they refuse, you can take the case to the Press Complaints Commission or where broadcast media is concerned, to the Office of Communications (Ofcom).

Bear in mind that if a patient threatens to 'go to the papers' the chances are that this will come to nothing. Even if the patient carries out the threat, it does not mean that the journalist will be interested. Above all, if a journalist does contact you, remain professional and seek advice.

  • Dr Godwin is a medico-legal adviser at the Medical Defence Union, www.the-mdu.com

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