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Caught in the headlines? How should you respond?

27 April 2009

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Dawn Boyall
MDU Media Relations Manager

Dawn (pictured) has been advising MDU members on handling the media for around eight years, and regularly helps practices formulate media statements. She is part of a team helping members with the media intrusion that often accompanies their involvement in high-profile cases

It is an unnerving experience to receive a call from the media telling you that a patient has a complaint about your surgery, particularly if it’s the first you’ve heard of it.

The Medical Defence Union’s (MDU) press office receives several calls each week from GP practices, requesting help when the media has contacted them. In many cases, practice managers play a key role in co-ordinating the media response, so it’s important to be aware of a few basic rules and techniques.

If you are caught off-guard, it might be tempting to fire off a “no comment” or to issue a swift denial if you know the story is untrue, but it is always wise to seek help from your medical defence organisation who will have dealt with many such cases before and can advise you on a measured, professional response.

The nature of cases that lead a patient or family to contact the media varies widely. Some examples of typical cases referred to the MDU by members are below. Many relate to ongoing investigations, such as where a patient has made a General Medical Council (GMC) complaint about a doctor or a negligence claim seeking compensation, for example, for a delay in diagnosing cancer.

In cases such as these, the practice may already have sought their medical defence organisation’s advice and agreed a practice response to any press enquiries. But other calls may not be anticipated. For example, if parents complain directly to the local paper that their child has been given the MMR vaccination inadvertently by a practice against their wishes (see below).

Journalists have a duty to seek both sides of the story and will usually ask the practice to respond to the detailed and sometimes hurtful allegations being made by the patient. But such enquiries are almost always impossible to respond to in detail because of the contractual duty of confidentiality that applies to practice staff, and GPs’ and other healthcare professionals’ ethical duty of confidentiality. This applies even where a patient has placed personal or medical details in the public domain.

Although practice managers become adept at dealing with all sorts of problems and crises that arise as part of their varied role, a call from the media, while thankfully rare, can still be an unsettling experience.

There are a few general rules that will prove useful both to you and the rest of the practice team when confronted by the media:

  • If a journalist calls out of the blue and asks about a patient, stay calm, find out who they are and which paper or broadcaster they work for, and tell them that you will call them back.
  • Contact your medical defence organisation for help in responding.
  • Call the journalist back as soon as possible, even if it is simply to explain that you cannot comment because of your duty of confidentiality. A journalist on a tight deadline is unlikely to go away if you ignore them and will call again until he or she receives a response.
  • Remember that, unless they say otherwise, journalists are “on the record” from the moment they contact you. Everything you say can and will be quoted if relevant. Beware of off-the-cuff remarks and try to remain calm, even if you feel aggrieved at the questions being asked. Beware of confirming any details that could breach patient confidentiality. You cannot even confirm or deny that someone is a patient unless you have their consent to do so.
  • If you are unlucky enough to be “doorstepped” by a photographer or camera crew, don’t try to cover your face or hide. Allow them to take a photograph or film you. Once they have their photograph or footage they will usually leave you alone.
  • If this contact takes place at your surgery, you should make it clear to the media that they may not get in the way of your patients coming in and out of the surgery or take photographs of them.

While these points are vital when dealing with the media, it is also worth noting that in most cases where a unhappy patient actually carries out the threat of going to the media, the media will not be interested in their story.

Most journalists, particularly health or social affairs specialists, understand that medicine and the doctor/patient relationship are not characterised by simplistic black and white issues, and will bear that in mind when deciding whether to pursue a story.

Case one
A practice felt it was caught between a rock and a hard place when a GP prescribed the pill to a mature 15-year-old girl.

The practice manager took a call from a journalist from a local evening paper who said that the girl’s distressed mother called the paper that morning to explain that she was sure her daughter was having sex, as she had found the pill in her bedroom.

The practice manager remembered the mother calling earlier that day to ask if the GP prescribed the pill to her daughter. One of the GPs told her that they would not be able to discuss patient details because they had a duty of confidentiality.

The journalist said that surely the practice had a duty to protect patients, and that if the girl was putting herself in danger they should tell the mother what was going on?

The practice manager was a little shaken by the fact that the mother had gone to the media in the first place and by the somewhat strident tone of the journalist.

She spoke to an MDU press officer, who explained that there was nothing that the practice could say as all patients have a right to expect their details are treated confidentially.

The following day the newspaper ran a story with the headline: “GP helped my teenage daughter have sex”. The practice was very upset with the story and the way it was presented, but that was not the end of the story.

The mother also made a formal complaint, which the practice was able to resolve by arranging a meeting to explain the GMC stance on patient confidentiality and the Department of Health guidance on prescribing the pill to under-16s.

The mother said she appreciated the honest response and the professional way in which they dealt with her concerns. Although she still did not agree with the fact that they had given her daughter the pill, she now understood why they had taken the decision, and the complaint went no further.

Case two
A GP inadvertently gave a child the MMR vaccine when the parents had specified they wanted single-dose vaccines, as their older child had recently been diagnosed with autism. He apologised immediately and explained how the mix-up had occurred.

A week later a reporter from a local paper rang the surgery and spoke to the practice manager, who politely explained that the practice couldn’t comment. The next day the paper ran a story about the case, with the parents saying the doctor may have condemned their child to autism. The story also featured a picture of the harassed-looking doctor running to his car to escape the attention of the paper’s photographer.

The practice was upset about the one-sided story and concerned about what other patients would think. The practice manager rang the MDU’s press office after the story had appeared, to ask if he should ask the paper to print a correction.

While sympathising with the practice, the MDU explained that it would be difficult for the practice to put over its side of the story as they had a duty of confidentiality. The MDU press officer also explained that, in their experience, responding to these stories, even in general terms, could give the story “legs” – ie, keep the story running for a longer period in the paper, and that by not responding the story was more likely to die down.

The practice manager accepted the advice that there was nothing he could usefully say. The press office was able to give him advice about responding to any other journalists who may approach him, and also offered advice to the GP about posing for photographs. Fortunately, the practice did not need to put this advice into action as the story did not appear again.

The above cases are fictitious, but are based on cases from MDU files.

© Copyright MDU 2009