From miracle cures to spotting the symptoms of deadly diseases, there is no shortage of health stories in the media. The problem is that there is so much information, often conflicting, that it is difficult for the public to know what to believe. This is where the authoritative voice of a GP can make all the difference.
As the UK’s most trusted profession,1 doctors are frequently invited onto a variety of media forums to give their views on health fads and medical discoveries and to answer the public’s general medical questions. It can be flattering to be asked to give your expert views in the media, but you might want to consider the following five medico-legal dos and don’ts before agreeing to take part:
1. Don’t be a substitute for a patient’s GP
Giving personal medical advice on radio phone-ins or in newspaper columns can be problematic. The GMC says doctors who 'assess, diagnose or treat patients' must 'adequately assess' their condition2 including, where necessary, examining the patient, but in this situation you will not know the patient’s medical history or be able to carry out an examination.
If you do answer medical questions in the media, it’s a good idea to remind people that they should always consult their own GP if they are worried. You might still be asked to justify any advice you give.
If you have a social media profile, you may be approached online following a television or radio appearance by someone wanting specific advice about their own condition. The same considerations apply and it’s usually better to advise the person to consult their own GP.
2. Always be mindful of patient confidentiality
The media thrives on human interest stories and real-life examples but using cases from your own practice to educate, inform or entertain can easily backfire.
You owe a duty of confidentiality to all your patients, whether living or dead. Discussing details of a clinical case, however heavily anonymised, may result in the patient's identity being recognised – by the patient, their family, your colleagues, or a member of the public. Without fully informed patient consent, this would constitute a breach of patient confidentiality, so beware of being too specific.
3. Keep your advice UK-focussed
The internet is not constrained by national borders, but doctors can only work in the country in which they are registered and licensed to practise.
If you work as an online doctor, you need to make it clear that the advice you provide is intended for a UK audience, within the UK jurisdiction. Another approach might be to ask the site manager to get people to confirm they are UK residents before being given access to information.
4. Maintain your professionalism
It’s not uncommon for something you contribute to in the media to cause a reaction, be it positive or negative. However, it’s important not to get into a war of words with those commenting, no matter how much you disagree with what is being said. Be professional and polite at all times.
The GMC says 'you must make sure that your conduct justifies your patient’s trust in you and the public’s trust in the profession'.3 and has previously warned doctors not to get embroiled in public disputes with patients in response to criticism in the press.4
Some discussion programmes can be intentionally provocative so it’s important to find out as much as you can about the topic and the other people involved before deciding whether to take part. If you doubt your ability to remain calm, it may be better to say no.
5. Ensure you have suitable indemnity for media work
If you’ve been asked to write, broadcast on radio or TV or publish information online and are wondering whether to say yes, the press office of your medical defence organisation may be able to give you some general pointers. Make sure you seek indemnity from the publisher, broadcaster or internet service provider in case your advice leads to a libel action, or allegations of breach of copyright.
By considering these steps, GPs offering advice via the media can harness the opportunity of informing a large audience about their health and medications, while avoiding medico-legal pitfalls.
- Ipsos MORI Veracity Index 2015: Trust in Professions, 22 January 2016
- Paragraph 15, Good Medical Practice, GMC, 2013
- Paragraph 65, Good Medical Practice, GMC, 2013
- Paragraph 4, Confidentiality: responding to criticism in the press, GMC, 2009