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Practice dilemma: Local newspaper story

One of your patients has recently been admitted to hospital and you learn from a local journalist that the family is accusing a GP at your practice of a prescribing error. What should you do? Our legal expert gives advice.

You have checked the records and are sure the GP's prescribing is not at fault. You are unsure whether the practice should explain this to the journalist to defend him – but are mindful of the duty of confidentiality.

You are correct to be careful. The practice's legal and ethical duty of confidentiality prevents it from discussing any details about a patient's care. Even confirming that the person was a patient at the surgery could be seen to be breaching confidentiality.

Arrange for the practice manager to call the journalist back to explain that the practice's duty of patient confidentiality prevent it from commenting. The practice manager should be wary of being drawn into a conversation about the allegations in case confidential details are revealed, or of making off the cuff remarks because anything that is said is ‘on the record' and may be printed.

The GMC has published guidance on ‘Responding to criticism in the press' (2009), which states that doctors must not put information they have learned in confidence about a patient in the public domain without that patient's express consent.

The GMC also advises that doctors should usually limit any press response to an explanation of their legal and professional duty of confidentiality. The GMC points out that disclosing information without patient consent can undermine public trust in the profession and the patient's trust in that doctor.

Dr Emma Cuzner is a medico-legal adviser at the Medical Defence Union