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Would you cope in media frenzy?

A new survey reveals that more and more GPs are being approached by journalists investigating accusations about care or treatment – Dr Rupert Lee gives advice on what to do

Just before Christmas a GP experienced the full glare of the media after allegedly failing to diagnose pulmonary embolus in a patient who was short of breath. The patient complained to the practice while she was recovering in hospital and the GP, responding via the practice's in-house complaints procedure, apologised and suggested she came to the surgery when she left hospital to discuss things further.

A week later a reporter from a national tabloid rang the surgery. Taken aback by the call, the GP curtly said 'no comment' and put the phone down. The next day the headline ran 'GP's bungle almost killed me' and accused the GP of being obstructive. Alongside the story it carried a picture of the harassed-looking GP running to his car in the surgery car park as if to escape the attention of the media mob.

Last year the MDU answered 160 calls for help from doctors contacted by the media for comment about their care or treatment – a 25 per cent rise on 2002 when 130 doctors asked for help.

Some calls came from doctors seeking advice because they found themselves the subject of newspaper campaigns, others from those facing GMC hearings who needed advice because they had been contacted by journalists or 'door stepped' by photographers.

GPs are used to dealing with patients but the workings of the media are very different and it may sometimes be easy for GPs to present themselves in a bad light. While patients are able to make detailed and often hurtful allegations in the press, GPs have a legal and ethical duty of confidentiality, so sometimes they can appear evasive, which is most unfair. The GP in this example was right not to comment.

Fortunately there are techniques that doctors can use to handle media inquiries while protecting confidentiality, presenting themselves in a professional manner and not appearing evasive.

If a journalist rings, stay calm, take his or her name and the organisation they work for and tell them you will call back. Contact your medical defence organisation to ask for help in responding and call the journalist back as soon as possible explaining that you cannot comment on specific cases because of your duty of confidentiality.

It is sometimes appropriate to give a more general response, however, such as saying you are sorry to hear that a person has raised concerns or explaining that patients have access to the NHS complaints procedure.

It is important to remember that unless they say otherwise journalists are 'on the record' from the moment they contact your surgery. Everything you or your staff say can be quoted. Beware of off-the-cuff remarks or confirming details breaching confidentiality.

If a photographer or broadcaster tries to film you, do not attempt to hide or take evasive action. Stand calmly and allow them to take a photograph or film you. Once they have what they want they will usually leave you alone and at least you will appear in a dignified light. If filming takes place in the surgery, ensure patients cannot be identified and that the film crew are not obstructing patient access.

It is worth bearing in mind that in the majority of cases where a patient actually carries out the threat of 'going to the media' the media will not be interested. Most journalists understand that medicine and the doctor/ patient relationship are not simplistic black-and-white issues.

Sometimes journalists want to make contact just to confirm there is no story to write. But given a GP's duty of confidentiality even that can occasionally be impossible.

Rupert Lee is a clinical risk manager at the MDU

The golden rules when

dealing with the press

lIf a journalist rings, stay calm

lTake his name and that of his paper and say you'll ring back

lContact your medical defence organisation

lRemember journalists are always on the record unless they say they are not

lRemember you have a duty of confidentiality

lDo not attempt to evade photographers

lIf filming is in the surgery ensure patients cannot be identified

lIf filming is in the surgery ensure film crew do not obstruct patients

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