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Handling the media – what happens when a patient complains to a journalist

30 July 2018

Raj Pattni, a Dental Protection press officer, looks at the best strategies to adopt if you suddenly find yourself in the news as a result of a patient contacting them

Top tips
If you are contacted by a journalist about a patient complaint:

  • Note the outline of the story
  • Take journalist’s contact details
  • Check their deadline
  • Alert Dental Protection
  • Remember your duty of confidentiality

While most dentists will have received a complaint from a patient who has taken the trouble to contact them personally, in some cases, unhappy patients are reluctant to complain directly to the dentist who provided their treatment – they go straight to the local newspaper instead.

If a journalist feels there could be a story worth investigating, they may contact the practice, dentist or staff member at the centre of the complaint. When dealing with newspapers, it is important to remember the very tight restrictions imposed by the Dental Council about advertising. In other words, nothing in any news article should be seen as promoting the business or you as an individual dentist.

What would you do?
The following scenarios are two very common examples of situations in which members may find themselves, and something that the Dental Protection press office may be able to assist you with.

In the first instance, you may only hear that a patient is unhappy with the treatment provided after being contacted by a journalist. If a patient has not previously contacted the practice to formally complain, you may not realise they were not entirely satisfied with the service you provided.

Secondly, you may believe that the story as told to the journalist is a distortion of the facts and wish to give your side in full to set the record straight.

Scenario 1:
A journalist from a newspaper contacts you at 10am to say they’ve received an email from an unhappy patient. The journalist wants a response from you about the treatment you provided and your thoughts on what the patient has said by 4pm, as they want to use the story the following morning.

It is important to know who exactly the journalist is and which patient complained so that you can provide an appropriate response.

Make some notes about the story the journalist is writing – who is involved, what is being alleged by the patient, is anyone else being asked about the story. Ensure you also take contact details for the journalist.

Avoid giving any comments or answers immediately – it is important you take time to consider what you want to say in response. You also need to be mindful of your responsibilities to the patient and the over-arching duty of confidentiality you have. Remember that without the patient’s express authority you cannot make any comment to the journalist about that person’s care.

Journalists often work to tight deadlines, and so you may find that you have only a short time to write a statement. In this scenario, they’ve given you just a few hours to respond, so it is important that you try and put together a statement by the deadline. In the event that you are unable to provide a statement by the deadline, the story could be published with a comment saying you were asked for a comment, but did not provide one. It is more beneficial for you to have a statement responding to the journalist, rather than simply saying “no comment”.

Dental Protection can help you prepare a statement. When you contact us for assistance, it is important that we know the deadlines involved; be sure to ask the journalist where and when the story will be published. You may find that it is both online and in print. Read the story carefully once published and be on the lookout for any factual inaccuracies. We can also help you to have such errors corrected.

Scenario 2:
Following a complaint from a patient, a journalist has written an article about you in the paper. Your patients, family and friends are likely to see it and this could impact on your professional reputation. The story is a generally true reflection of the facts of the case, but there are a couple of inaccuracies.

In this scenario, the journalist who has written a story about the treatment you provided has not contacted you for any comment. Instead, they have written the story entirely from the patient’s point of view.

It can be quite surprising to open a local paper and see a story mentioning you or your practice, and perhaps even alarming if you are mentioned in a story alleging poor treatment. If you read a story about the treatment you provided, you may find that the story uses very emotive language or perhaps that the story, as written, is a slightly exaggerated account of events.

There might be a temptation to phone the journalist to set the record straight and detail what actually happened during treatment, but remember your duty of confidentiality to the patient. Discussing any conversations or treatment provided without the patient’s consent would be a breach of duty – even if the patient has the details of what happened.

Where there are factual inaccuracies in the account however, these can be corrected as long as the inaccuracies do not relate to clinical detail. If you are looking to have something corrected in the news, it is likely that a number of days may have passed since the article was published. Any corrections issued a few days after the publication, may give the story further publicity that keeps it in the paper, or near the top of their website, longer.

If the factual inaccuracies are unlikely to cause you significant distress or reputational damage, there may be greater benefit in letting the story be. News stories do not tend to linger that long and are soon replaced by other news.

When to contact Dental Protection
If you find yourself experiencing either of the scenarios above, or if you receive media attention as a result of clinical practice, the Dental Protection press office is available to offer advice and deal with journalists on your behalf.

While it can be worrying to be approached by the media, contacting Dental Protection as soon as possible allows us to help you to try and avoid any prolonged exposure in the news.