Leveson proposals can protect doctors against media intrusion

The Leveson inquiry into press standards is an opportunity to protect doctors against a rising tide of unfair media scrutiny, medico-legal experts believe.

Dr Stephanie Bown: Leveson is an opportunity to protect doctors
Dr Stephanie Bown: Leveson is an opportunity to protect doctors

Lord Justice Leveson will report his findings and recommendations on Thursday.

Dr Stephanie Bown, director of policy and communications at the Medical Protection Society (MPS), says the outcome of the inquiry comes at a time when it feels that the media ‘more and more is giving doctors a hard time’.

A month before the end of 2012, the MPS has received 40% more calls relating to the media than it did in the whole of 2011, Dr Bown says.

Anecdotally, she says there has also been a rise in cases where the first thing GPs know about a complaint from a patient is when they receive a call from the media. ‘This is very concerning for them and their practice,’ she says.

Doctors, says Dr Bown, are ‘relatively easy game’ for the media.

‘Scrutiny from the media often comes at a time when doctors are being investigated - media coverage of the first day of a GMC hearing, for example.

‘Allegations are read out and reported in the press, the doctor clearly cannot respond during the course of the hearing. When the claims are not upheld, it doesn’t make such good news, so the coverage is not balanced.’

This is a factor with most court or crime reporting, but Dr Bown adds: ‘The challenge is that doctors are largely expected to hold public trust and confidence, and there are expectations of the profession, such that serious allegations in the press have greater potential to damage their reputation and professional practice that in many other circumstances, because there is that trust relationship with patients.’

The Leveson inquiry is unlikely to address the concerns of the medical profession specifically, Dr Bown concedes.

But she says: ‘We would like to see a change in culture and leadership. Not necessarily a change in legislation - that often throws up unexpected consequences.

‘We’d want to see a strong change in culture built around strong leadership, and sanctions for those who breach a code of conduct.

‘When a doctor is unable to say anything due to confidentiality, responsible reporting should not take a patient’s allegation at face value, it should take some steps to test them and see if they can be verified.

‘We understand the importance of a free press and the entitlement of patients to express concerns in a public forum.

‘But we hope Leveson may be an opportunity to put some safeguards in place.’

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