If the press took an interest in a complaint, would you know how to respond? Debbie Herbst compiles a quick guide for dentists in the spotlight.

It's rare for a dental patient to approach the media rather than taking a complaint directly to their dental professional. But if you are contacted by a journalist, it's important to know how to handle the situation appropriately and professionally. 

Key points 

  • Exercise caution when dealing with the media. 
  • Maintain a professional attitude at all times. 
  • Remember that patient confidentiality comes first. 
  • Contact the DDU press office for advice. 

When might you have to deal with the media? 

A patient has gone directly to the press

Patients may approach the media if something has gone wrong with their treatment, and you could be asked for your side of the story. 

You are facing court/GDC proceedings

If you are involved in a legal case with a sufficiently high profile, you could end up in the public eye as a result. Some types of cases, like those concerning alleged sexual misconduct or dishonesty, may attract more attention than others. 

You have a high profile or celebrity patient

If your patient has a noted public profile or status, the media may be interested in you by association. A patient's right to confidentiality must be respected at all times, regardless of who they are. 

Your patient is the subject of a media article or documentary

You still have responsibilities and obligations to your patient even if they have agreed to divulge personal information to the media themselves. 

What are your priorities? 

When dealing with the media, it's important to remember that your priority is to your patients and your profession. 

Patient confidentiality 

The GDC advises in 'Standards for the Dental Team' that you must 'Protect the confidentiality of patients' information and only use it for the purpose for which it was given' (Standard 4.2).  

You are legally and ethically bound to respect a patient's confidentiality at all times. Because of this, dental professionals are usually unable to give their side of the story. No such constraints are placed on patients when making allegations or statements to the press, and media coverage can often seem very one-sided as a result. This can be frustrating, but you must remember that patient confidentiality comes first. 

Maintaining professionalism 

The GDC's 'Standards for the Dental Team' (2013) states that all GDC registrants should 'Be honest and act with integrity' (Standard 1.3) and 'Put patients' interests before your own or those of any colleague, business or organisation' (Standard 1.7). Keep this in mind when considering your interactions with the press.

Getting into a public dispute can be seen as unprofessional. Clashes between dental professionals and patients in the media can prolong or even worsen the situation, and may undermine the public's confidence in you and your profession.

A patient's right to confidentiality must be respected at all times, regardless of who they are.

What to do if you're approached by the media 

If you are approached by the media for any reason, you may find it helpful to follow some basic rules. 

Get the journalist's details

Ask who they are, which outlet they work for and ask for a phone number so you can contact them in your own time. 

Contact the DDU press office

The DDU can help with preparing a response, and may be able to liaise with the press on your behalf. 

Call them back

Journalists are unlikely to go away if you just ignore them, so it's advisable to be in contact even if it's just to say you can't comment because of your duty of confidentiality. 

Always treat journalists as 'on the record'

Be careful what you say, as any comments you make could be used in a story.

It's possible to inadvertently confirm something by denial or omission. Even something as simple as confirming that someone is a patient may breach your legal and ethical obligations. 

Being photographed

As well as your comments, the press may want to take your picture to accompany their story. 

Don't 'cover up'

Let them take their photo and the photographer will usually leave. Hiding your face or turning away from the camera may also give the impression that you've got something to hide. 

Remember patient confidentiality is key

This must be respected by photographers as well as dental professionals (for example, if they arrive at your practice). 

Ensure photographers aren't being obstructive

Photographers are legally allowed to take pictures on the public highway, but you should make sure patients can't be identified and patient access isn't obstructed. 

Making a statement 

It's best to keep communication with the press to a minimum. This will help maintain both your professionalism and your duties to your patients. 

If you do need to make a statement - for example, if a case against you has concluded in your favour - the DDU's press office can help you draft a suitable response. Alternatively, call the DDU's dento-legal helpline and speak to one of our advisers. Contact us here.

This page was correct at publication on 19/05/2016. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.