Practices in the media spotlight
Dealing with media interest is tricky at the best of times. Doing so in the midst of a pandemic can present further challenges. Shreeti Patel explains what to do if approached by the media.
Dental practices may sometimes appear in the news as a result of a story related to a dental negligence claim, poor standards of care (such as a cross infection breach), or as a result of a personal conduct issue involving staff.
Involvement in a high-profile General Dental Council (GDC) hearing or – thankfully less common – an inquest into a patient’s death as a result of dental treatment can also lead to questions from media. Occasionally, contact from the media is the first that some practices hear of a patient or family member’s grievances.
The response to COVID-19 has heavily impacted dentistry. Therefore, the potential to attract media interest has been greater than usual.
Over the last few years, the media has widely reported on practice closure. Also, access to emergency dental care during the first national lockdown. Subsequently, once dentists were allowed to return to work, media focus shifted to patient safety. As well as this, the availability of and costs related to personal protective wear (PPE) required for dentistry to resume.
Engaging with the media is daunting for dentists, and the following points will help you prepare to manage such a situation.
A journalist may simply email or phone the practice asking for a comment.
They may also be more inventive and try to catch people off-guard in the hope that it will prompt a reaction. For example, they may turn up at the practice or even at a dentist’s home.
They may also invite comment via social media, privately via a message or in a public forum.
If approached by a journalist by phone, you should try to maintain composure and stay calm. Simply take note of the basic details of the publication, the issue, what they are asking for a comment on, the deadline for the comment, and all of the journalist’s contact details. Tell them you will get back to them. It’s important to try to avoid saying ‘no comment’.
Practice staff should then alert the dentist involved and other colleagues, as necessary, in case they are approached too.
It is a good idea to then start liaising with others involved with the patient or their care to summarise the key facts and points.
Seek media advice from your defence organisation
Often, the deadline is very short, so there is an urgency to act quickly. Notify your dental defence organisation (DDO) of the allegation or complaint generated, the media interest and seek advice.
Be prepared to share the key facts and points with your DDO. The team will offer useful advice on how to best handle the situation, and the resulting media attention.
It is tempting to give your side of the story. Especially if you feel as though you or your practice has been cast in a negative light. Also, if you know the information that provided is inaccurate or incomplete.
However, dentists have a professional duty to protect the patient’s right to confidentiality (this is set out in standard 4.2 of the GDC’s Standards for the Dental Team).
Commenting on any specifics relating to your patient’s care is considered a breach of confidentiality. It could lead to a complaint, disciplinary action or regulatory sanction. This includes confirming that the practice has treated the patient.
Even if a patient informs you of their consent to provide a comment about their care, it is usually not appropriate to do so in a public forum.
It may feel impossible to respond to the journalist, or defend your reputation, and this is frustrating. However, your DDO can help in formulating an appropriate response without compromising patient confidentiality and helping the journalist to understand why you are limited in what you can say.
Often, the most sensible statement will explain that you have a professional duty to maintain patient confidentiality and cannot comment further.
You may also wish to make other general comments. For example a reassurance that you always strive to provide the best possible care and service.
If you cannot give any more detail in a response due to patient confidentiality, general comments such as these come across better than a comment in the article stating that the practice or dentist ‘declined to comment’.
It is a good idea to keep contemporaneous records of all dealings with the press. They could assist in defending your actions if you receive a complaint about the information you disclose.
If this issue is related to patient care, or a dentist from the practice is involved in a high-profile inquest or GDC hearing, it is possible that you may be confronted by a photographer or camera crew outside the practice or even your home.
They will try to obtain an image to go alongside any news articles published. Therefore it’s important for you and your colleagues to maintain professional composure.
Again, try to avoid saying ‘no comment’. Some may perceive this as you having something to hide. Also, remember that there is rarely such a thing as ‘off the record’. If you do not want to see something in print, it is better to say nothing at all if asked a question.
Alert all practice staff to the presence of photographers or camera crews as soon as possible. This ensures that everyone takes steps to protect the confidentiality of other patients.
Remain calm, remain professional
There are some other, general pointers that are helpful to remember on top of these:
- Any comments or statement provided to media should be short and factual. Lengthy statements may be cut down, which could distort the meaning or emphasis
- Remember to use plain language that no-one can misconstrue or take out of context
- Avoid acronyms that others may not understand.
Regardless of why the media finds you or your practice interesting, it can cause a lot of stress.
Above all, try to remain professional when dealing with the issue. Continue to provide your patients with the best care and service possible, and remember you are not alone.
Dental Protection, or your DDO, is there for advice and support. Even if you feel that you can handle the media issue yourself.
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