The General Medical Council has issued guidance to doctors warning them against wading into media disputes if criticisms have been made about them in the press.
Issuing advice for the first time on dealing with press criticism, the GMC warned doctors against unnecessary participation in media disputes with patients.
In new guidance addressing doctor/patient confidentiality issues, the GMC told doctors that involving themselves in press arguments “often serve[s] no practical purpose”.
The GMC said involvement in press disputes could prove aggravating, even if confidentiality was not breached, and urged doctors to limit their response to criticisms made against them to statements on their duty of confidentiality or general information about their normal practice.
The GMC guidance said: “Doctors are sometimes criticised in the press by their patients or by someone their patients have a close personal relationship with.
“The criticism can include inaccurate or misleading details of the doctor’s diagnosis, treatment or behaviour.
“Although this can be frustrating or distressing, it does not relieve you of your duty to respect your patient’s confidentiality.”
The GMC reminded doctors that patient confidentiality remained paramount even if a practice was called into question in the media and that disclosing confidential information without consent “can undermine the public’s trust in the profession” as well as the trust individual patients place in their doctor.
It also reminds doctors not to put such information in the public domain “without that patient’s express consent”.
“Press reports might cause patients to be concerned about your practise, or that of a health service you are associated with. In such cases in may be appropriate to give general information about your normal practice.
“You must be careful not to reveal personal information about a patient, or to give an account of their care, without their consent. If you deny allegations that appear in the press, you must be careful not to reveal, directly or by omission or inference, any more personal information about the patient than a simple denail demands.”
The GMC also urged doctors to seek advice from their professional or defence body, or a solicitor, on how to respond to press criticism and, if appropriate, any legal redress.
The Medical Protection Society, which offers advice and support to doctors who have been criticised in the press, said it supported the new guidance.
Dr Stephanie Bown, director of policy and communications for MPS, said “[It] can be really difficult for a professional when they read criticisms of themselves in the press, and yet it is important that the profession maintains their composure and conduct even in difficult situations, in order to maintain public confidence.”
The MPS, Bown added, would welcome additional guidelines from the GMC on situations where undercover journalists pose as patients.