No physician likes learning that a patient has posted bad things about them on Facebook or other social media. In my last post, I quoted a surgeon who calls this experience “one of the miseries of the modern era.” When he says that it has “the potential... to wreak havoc on the mind,” he’s right. Although most physicians recovering from adverse patient outcomes or coping with medical malpractice litigation don’t encounter bad press or social media posts, for those who do, it compounds their distress.
My last post reviewed STEP 1 -- the mindset physicians who confront bad press or social media posts while coping with malpractice litigation need. Your mindset reset is crucial. While the social media world moves fast, jumping in quickly from an anxious or angry frame of mind will augment your stress by breathing oxygen on the fire. Today, let’s go a few steps further. We’ll dive into concrete suggestions for the physician recovering from an adverse patient outcome or coping with malpractice litigation for whom bad press or social media posts arise.
STEP 2: PAUSE BEFORE RESPONDING TO SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS
In order to thrive in the face of a bad encounter with social media, you absolutely must take care of yourself. Pause first, pause often. Breathe deeply until your heart rate slows. Take a long walk or a run, maybe with a friend. Slow dance in the kitchen with your sweetheart. Soak in a hot bath, play with the dog, try yoga, play basketball. Laugh. In short, do anything that draws out your parasympathetic nervous response. Do it as many times as you need to, as often as you need to, until the storm blows over. Cultivate your faith that this will pass, because it will.
Be ultra-mindful of how you engage with alcohol or any other drug or activity that people use to numb the mind. Your desperation for peace and joy will make you more vulnerable to the neurotransmitter surges that can scaffold addiction. Seek your dopamine, endorphin, and oxytocin rushes choicefully. Select activities you know it would be good to be hooked on and go with them.
If you wonder whether something presents a risk, google whether anybody is using a 12-step program to give it up! (Hint: There is no Tea-drinking, Sailing, Weight-lifting, Ball-throwing, Sitcom-watching Runners Anonymous out there for a reason.)
STEP 3: DEVELOP A SCRIPT
Like the surgeon I spoke with last time, physicians often learn that something is rotten on social media because a patient or staff member mentions it. Not fun!
Given the risk modern physicians face that a patient -- or even a stranger -- may post something negative about them online, it’s in our best interest to have a brief script handy to respond to these situations. You want something that feels responsible and right, something true to your highest ideals.
If a community member or staff-person approaches you about bad press or social media posts, try this on for size:
“I really appreciate your concern for me and my well-being. The ethics of medical practice are such that, as a physician, I really cannot even comment as to whether someone is my patient. However, anytime someone says negative things about someone else, I always think it’s wise to remember that in every story, there are two sides.”
If pushed, try:
“It wouldn’t be ethical for me to say anything more.”
As I see it, this script is widely applicable. Medical malpractice litigation? Unhappy patient? Scam negative reviews? Any way you slice it, reasonable people (and don’t we all love to care for and work with reasonable people?) will invariably respect an ethical physician.
There are fringe benefits to this approach. As the AMA advises, when responding to online reviews, “Don’t disclose any information about the patient—don’t even acknowledge the person is a patient in your office. HIPAA still applies. Even if a patient has disclosed his or her (health) information in an online review,” HIPAA prohibits your acknowledging that information without their permission. ”A patient’s own disclosure is not permission for the doctor to disclose anything.”
Having handled the situation gracefully, give yourself a high five. Your conscience is clean! And, as I’ve said before, the most important goal in running the Marathon of Malpractice Litigation is to reach the finish line with a clean conscience.
STEP 4: CONSIDER LEGAL COUNSEL
If you are coping with malpractice litigation, and learn about any related press or social media posts, promptly bring it to the attention of your defense attorney. Given that such posts may come up in court or impact on potential jurors, defense attorneys may opt to nip the problem in the bud through direct communication with the plaintiff’s counsel or by having the court caution the plaintiff.
While patients who become plaintiffs do not lose their right to freedom of expression, an experienced malpractice defense attorney tells me that egregious cases can veer into libel or defamation. If things become severe, you may wish to engage personal legal counsel. Malpractice carriers or hospitals often do not hire the malpractice defense attorney to deal with that aspect of a physician’s situation, however the attorneys at your institution, your malpractice defense attorney, or your malpractice insurance carrier case manager may offer an insightful perspective and a referral if needed.
When it comes to a member of the press, especially where malpractice litigation is concerned, consider reminding them of your obligation to protect patients’ confidentiality and refer them to your defense attorney. If they press you (no pun intended!), say that it is simply not appropriate for you to comment. According to an experienced attorney, “even ... an accurate, factual quote … can be misconstrued … in some fashion when published.”
If approached after a medical malpractice verdict, I encourage you to restore your privacy by allowing your attorney to respond to queries from the press.
STEP 5: GET THE OTHER HELP YOU NEED
There’s no denying that facing bad press or social media posts after an adverse patient outcome is very hard. As in every aspect of coping with malpractice litigation, your best strategy is to be your highest, most ethical, professional self and remain connected to people who support you. Physicians repeatedly say that the worst part of medical malpractice litigation is the isolation it engenders. I want you to challenge that! There are appropriate ways to get the support you need without delving into the details of your case. Reach out to me here or schedule a first call here if you’d like to explore how confidential, targeted coaching with an experienced physician might strengthen and support you through this time.
There’s no need for you to struggle alone!