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

15 August 2018

Raj Pattni, a Dental Protection press officer, looks at the best strategies to adopt if you suddenly find yourself in the press
Top tips
If you are contacted by a journalist about a patient complaint

  • Note the outline of the story
  • Take the journalist’s contact details
  • Check their deadline
  • Don’t feel pressured into giving an immediate answer
  • 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 surgery – they go straight to the press instead.

If the press feels there may be a story worth investigating, they could contact the practice, dentist or staff member at the centre of the complaint.
What would you do?
The following scenarios are two common examples of situations in which members find themselves, and where the
Dental Protection press office may be able to assist you.

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.
When to contact dental protection
If you find yourself experiencing either of the scenarios on the next page, 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.

Scenario 1: 
A journalist from a national 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’ll be running 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, and whether 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 overarching duty of confidentiality you have.

Journalists often work to tight deadlines, and so you may find that you have only a short time to write a statement. Nevertheless, it is important that you try and put together a statement by the deadline. You can contact Dental Protection for help and advice with this. In the event that you are unable to provide a statement by the deadline, the story could be published saying you were asked for a comment but did not provide one. It is more beneficial to provide a statement responding to the journalist, even if it’s restricted due to patient confidentiality.

Once you have provided a statement, 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.

Scenario 2: 
Following a complaint from a patient, a journalist has written an article about you in the local 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.

The temptation might be 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 journalist has the details of what happened. You can contact Dental Protection for help and advice with this.

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 press, bear in mind 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.

Contact
Raj Pattni is a press officer at Dental Protection. You can contact the press office by email at pressoffice@dentalprotection.org
Please note: Dental Protection does not maintain this article and therefore the advice given may be incorrect or out of date, and may not constitute a definitive or complete statement of the legal, regulatory and/or clinical environment. MPS accepts no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the advice given, in particular where the legal, regulatory and/or clinical environment has changed. Articles are not intended to constitute advice in any specific situation, and if you are a member you should contact Dental Protection for tailored advice. All implied warranties and conditions are excluded, to the maximum extent permitted by law.