How GPs can provide trustworthy advice to the media during COVID-19 outbreak

The MDU’s Dr Helen Burnell outlines the medico-legal considerations of being in the media spotlight during a pandemic.

(Photo: Sean Gladwell/Getty Images)
(Photo: Sean Gladwell/Getty Images)

During the coronavirus, the net is being cast ever wider in search of healthcare professionals to comment on the latest news. GPs have a vital role to play in ensuring patients are pointed to reliable sources of information.

However, while you might welcome the opportunity to give a GP perspective in the media, it is important to consider the medico-legal dos and don’ts first.

1. Don’t be a substitute for a patient’s own GP

Many GP consultations are taking place remotely at the moment but giving personal medical advice through the media is very different to providing advice to your own patients The GMC says doctors who 'assess, diagnose or treat patients' must 'adequately assess' their condition.

If you do answer medical questions, it’s a good idea to stick to general advice and remind people that they should always consult their own GP if they are worried. You might still be asked to justify any information or advice you give.

If you have a social media profile, you may be approached online following a print, broadcast or social media appearance by someone wanting specific advice. The same considerations apply and you should advise the person to consult their own practice and refer them to the NHS 111 website.

2. Respect patient confidentiality

The media thrives on human interest stories and real-life examples but talking about your own patients can easily backfire and should usually be avoided.

You owe a duty of confidentiality to all your patients, 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.

3. Maintain your professionalism

In the current uncertain situation, the public comments your make can lead to a debate, be it positive or negative. However, it’s important not to get into a war of words with commenters, no matter how much you disagree with what is being said. Be professional and polite at all times.

In Good Medical Practice, 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'. In its guidance on responding to criticism in the media, it warns doctors not to get embroiled in public disputes with patients in response to criticism as this may undermine public confidence.

The same applies to disputes between doctors and other healthcare professionals which should be handled through the correct channels, and not commented on in the media.

If you are thinking of taking part in a discussion programme find out as much as you can about the topic and the other people involved before deciding whether to take part. Under the stress of taking part you may inadvertently say something that you later regret so if you have any concerns, it may be better to decline the offer.

4. Report disinformation

You can do your bit to ensure patients are pointed to reliable sources of information. For example, you can use the practice website and practice social media to post links to authoritative sources of public health information about COVID19 such as the NHS. However, you should avoid straying into areas beyond your expertise.

If you come across conspiracy theories or quackery online, it’s better to avoid reposting stories (even if you want to debunk them) or getting into a debate about them. This avoids drawing more attention to dubious content. You can report posts of concern to the social media provider.

The government has launched a campaign against hoax stories on social media and set up a rapid response unit to work with social media firms to remove harmful content.   

5. Ensure you have suitable indemnity for media work

You should always ensure that you have the correct indemnity in place for any work you undertake. In the unlikely event your contribution leads to a libel action or allegations of breach of copyright, the publisher, broadcaster or internet service provider should be able to provide you with indemnity so it is worth checking with them first.

Contact your MDO membership department to inform them of any additional roles or work you are considering undertaking.

f you are commissioned 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.

?6. Keep your colleagues informed

Check with senior colleagues before providing a media comment to ensure you are speaking knowledgeably and from a place of authority and in line with any staff policies.

By following these principles, GPs can use the media to inform and reassure a large audience about this important public health issue.

  • Dr Burnell is a medico-legal adviser at the MDU.

This is an updated version of this article: Advice on working as a media doctor

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