Malpractice Defense Basics: Bad Press and Social Media Posts, Pt I

Every now and then, life points me toward a theme so repeatedly that I can’t possibly ignore it until I address it. Today is one of those days, and this post is one of those posts.

Everywhere I turn lately, I hear from a physician struggling with difficult comments posted on social media, usually Facebook or Twitter. The comments may stem from disagreements over medical science or over a particular patient’s care. Regardless, they are derogatory. At times, they devolve into name-calling, threats, or alarming attempts to damage that physician’s reputation in the community. In instances where the physician is recovering from an adverse patient outcome or coping with medical malpractice litigation, these comments naturally compound their distress.

This issue is big. Too big for one post, so I’ll break it into two. Today we’ll begin with this question: What should a physician’s mindset be in relation to bad press or ugly social media posts after an adverse patient outcome or in the middle of a medical malpractice lawsuit?

Next time, we’ll get granular with some explicit instructions for that physician when a patient who has sued posts bad things on Facebook or other social media.

Why Does Bad Press Happen to Physicians?

I know the answer to this question seems obvious — somebody’s mad!

Nonetheless, since the way we process that question impacts on our mindset, and our mindset impacts more than anything else on how we recover from adverse patient outcomes and survive malpractice litigation, I want to delve into it.

Malpractice Defense Basics: Dealing with Bad Social Media Posts

The problem of ugly social media posts is larger than us, of course. I consider it a variation on cyber-bullying, which confronts many in our society right now, especially children and teens, but also other types of professionals and business-people. Gossip is an age-old problem; modern technology magnifies it.

Why do humans love to gossip? We simply love dramatic stories so much that we recount them. And what do we do when our knowledge is incomplete? Our brains attempt to fill in the gaps.

Our work is gritty and heroic. (If you doubt that assertion, click here.) It’s not selling gum at a five-and-dime, right? Given that medicine is great fuel for drama when it goes well, imagine how it sets those human brains whirring when it doesn’t. Grey’s Anatomy, anyone? M*A*S*H? House? ER? Chicago Hope? The list could go on forever.

The truth I want to offer you, as painful as it may be at times, is that when you do such important work, there is a risk that someone will not be happy and will say so. Sometimes in public. Maybe very loudly. And if they do, it is hard!

But here’s the key: if and when you run up against that risk, you did so first and foremost because you are smart enough and courageous enough to engage in important, complex work. Never forget that the fact that something went wrong and someone is critical does not diminish your worth as someone who takes on absolutely crucial work.

Bad Press and Physician-Defendants

I recently had a conversation with a surgeon half-way across the country. He read “Breaking our Silence Around Malpractice Litigation” when Doximity shared it, and reached out to me with his story.

Coping with Social Media for Physicians

Some years ago, deeply saddened by a surgical complication, he found himself in the midst of a lawsuit. He recalls that a relative of the plaintiff “plaster(ed) their whole side of things on Facebook while (he) had to just sit there and take it.” He found this “excruciating,” and the fact that it was “brought to (his) attention by staff and patients” didn’t make it easier. It rightly felt so unfair that HIPAA precluded his revealing the facts from his perspective.

At the time, he lived in a small town. As he put it, the community’s members  “elevate(d) ‘keeping up on local gossip’ to an art form” to a level “unmatched. Using ...Facebook and some subterfuge, townsfolk (took) a few salient and (misconstrued) details of a medical procedure” that did not go as planned, “to push the ancient grapevine” to “greater heights.”

Like many physicians, he recalled “with wearying repetition and thorough depth of comprehension” the stunning moment in the OR when he realized that something was not right. “Hearing sparse details of the event” passed around by incompletely informed neighbors as “mere scuttlebutt” made matters worse. As he observes, trying to “(remain) impervious to the banter...can weigh one down, particularly when (one regularly encounters folks) hoping for another nugget of hearsay.”

Although he suspects that this problem is worse in small towns, my guess is that negative public statements, whether via social media, the press, or old-school gossip, painfully affect physicians everywhere. The question is, in the face of malpractice litigation or a potential malpractice lawsuit, how should we respond when a plaintiff spreads negative information about us?

How should a physician deal with bad social media posts

Step 1: Reality Check

First, I want you to know that my purely anecdotal impression is that this sort of thing happens to a small minority of physician-defendants. So, if it has not happened to you, just arm yourself with information by reading this post and the next. Then, put fear to bed, but ideally, not in your own bedroom! The most likely event is that this will not happen to you, and I know you’ve got more important things to attend to. Just stash the information away for someone else’s rainy day.

Second, if it has happened to you -- or is happening now -- please, please know that you are not alone. When I say this happens to a minority of physicians, I do not mean nobody but you. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of superb physicians who have confronted difficult press, be that in the form of social media posts or newspaper reporting. And here is the most important thing: in EVERY case that comes to mind, the ugliness passed. Sane people stuck with sanity. These physicians’ reputations were not ruined, and they have gone on to continued success in the practice of excellent medicine.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do not intend to minimize the fact that this compounds stress in an already terrible situation. I just want you to remember that you can get through this. A new tomorrow will come, if you hang in there and get the support you need. Please don’t hesitate to reach out here to work on litigation stress together one-on-one. So much of thriving through and beyond malpractice litigation is about mindset, and mindset is something we can reshape. And have no fear. There are ways to explore these things without diving into the medical or legal “details of the case.”

Come back in two weeks, and we’ll explore specific strategies to employ when responding to bad press and social media posts after an adverse patient outcome or in malpractice litigation. In the meanwhile, take some time to tune your mindset. Reflect on the fact that the courage that took you to medical school brought you here, and your courage will bring you through this, too. If you want to work one-on-one, I welcome the opportunity to help. Email or schedule an appointment here, and we’ll chat.

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