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GPs have been bitterly disappointed by critical articles from some sections of the press. The criticisms have included accusations that ‘lazy’ GPs avoided face-to-face appointments and inflammatory comments about GP pay and part-time working. Such articles proliferated despite the continued efforts of GP teams to provide millions of in-person appointments, as well as teleconsultations, throughout the pandemic.

It may be tempting to respond and set the record straight over these criticisms in the press. However, individual general practice staff should be cautious about interacting with the media. Legal and ethical obligations must be observed to uphold the public’s trust while avoiding the potential for further complaints or litigation.

Impact of negative press about GPs

Such negative and misleading coverage has gone so far as to undermine the relationship GPs have with their patients. ‘Anti-GP’ rhetoric has led to the misconception that GPs have been refusing to see patients face-to-face, which appears to have fuelled a rise in abuse from patients, as well as complaints, some of which are reported directly in the press and amplified on social media.

Unsurprisingly, the frequent criticism and blaming of GPs has also worsened staff morale and added to the mental health burden within general practice. Some have been driven to quit the profession altogether, exacerbating the workforce shortage.

Challenging the media criticism

The British Medical Association (BMA) and Royal College of GPs (RCGP) are working to challenge unfair criticism, calling for more support for general practice from the media and government.

Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair-elect of RCGP, said “I will do everything possible over the next three years to make sure our professional voice is a strong one and to ensure that politicians, policy makers, and influencers, including the media, understand and appreciate the work that GPs do; the importance and quality of the care we deliver to our patients, and the immense contribution we make to the wider NHS.”

GPs’ responsibilities when interacting with the media

Individual primary care staff may have to deal with the press for various reasons. For example, responding to media criticisms or requests for comment, handling media interest in a high-profile patient or a legal inquiry, or being commissioned as a medical expert in the media.

In such situations, it is important to be aware of GPs’ legal and ethical responsibilities and to keep in mind these key points:

  • Respect patient confidentiality
  • Be cautious; treat any communication with journalists as ‘on the record’
  • Maintain a professional attitude that justifies patients’ and the public’s trust
  • Do not engage in public disputes with patients or peers
  • Ensure you have adequate indemnity insurance in place.

General Medical Council (GMC) guidance, ‘Responding to criticism in the media’, includes:

“You must not put information you have learned in confidence about a patient in the public domain without that patient’s explicit consent. You should usually limit your public response to an explanation of your legal and professional duty of confidentiality.

However, from time to time, media reports or social media discussions might cause patients to be concerned about your practice, or that of a health service you are associated with. In such cases it may be appropriate to give general information about your normal practice.”

The guidance adds: “You should seek advice from your professional or defence body, or from a solicitor, on how to respond to criticism in the media and, if appropriate, any legal redress available to you.”

In practice: How to deal with the media

Primary care staff should know what to do if approached by the media:

  • If ‘cold-called’ by a journalist, do not engage in an interview. Request contact details and call back with a considered response.
  • If asked for comment about an individual patient’s care, respond in most cases by explaining the duty of patient confidentiality.
  • If journalists and photographers arrive at GP premises, make them aware of the need to respect patient confidentiality and request that they do not obstruct patient access.
  • If commissioned to provide general health advice to the public, remind people to consult their own GP about individual health issues.
  • If invited to take part in a discussion programme, find out in advance what the focus will be, who is involved, and how it will be broadcast. Consider carefully whether it is a topic on which you can speak with authority, without breaching your legal or ethical obligations.
  • Consult senior colleagues to ensure compliance with local policies.
  • Seek medico-legal advice.

Contact us at Medical Defense Society if you need medico-legal support with preparing a response to personal criticism in the press or for other advice about dealing with the media. Please inform us if your professional role changes to include media communications so that we can confirm suitable indemnity insurance.