The core of medical ethics is the one-to-one relationship between patient and physician. When a doctor appears as an expert in the news media, that context shifts to one physician and a potentially vast audience that trusts what’s said simply because “Dr.” appears before the speaker’s name.
Traditional ethical standards still apply, as well as specific ones to prevent misunderstanding and misuse of the physician’s role.
The AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs has studied the issue of “Ethical Physician Conduct in the Media,” and issued formal guidance in AMA Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 8.12.
The council’s report to the AMA House of Delegates acknowledges the tension that exists between when a physician appears in the media versus the traditional role of clinician interacting with an individual patient.
“Physicians have well-recognized responsibilities to use their knowledge and skills for the benefit of the community as a whole,” notes the report, adding that can include appearing in the media. However, the expectations held of physicians as members of the medical profession and of persons in the media are not always compatible.
“Participation in the media can have unintended consequences for the physician and the medical profession,” says the report, whose recommendations were adopted and incorporated into the AMA Code of Medical Ethics. “Information in the public sphere can be sensationalized, misrepresented or patently falsified, which can have potentially serious consequences if the benefits and drawbacks of medical advice are not appropriately conveyed.”
Here are four ethical considerations physicians should keep in mind when participating in the media.
Always remember that they are physicians first and foremost. Physicians “must uphold the values, norms, and integrity of the medical profession,” the opinion says. That includes protecting patient privacy and confidentiality, by not divulging identifiable information unless given specific permission by the patient.
Physicians also have to refrain from offering clinical diagnoses about individuals they have not personally examined, such as public officials or celebrities. As in other professional situations, there should be full disclosure of any conflicts of interest and situations should be avoided that that might lead to a potential conflict.
Encourage audience members to seek out their own qualified physicians. Appearing in the media entails providing general medical advice. Patients have their own unique questions and concerns they have about their respective care.
Be aware of how their medical training, qualifications, experience and advice are being used by media forums. This includes how this information is being communicated to the viewing public. Physicians should, according to the opinion, “confine their medical advice to their area(s) of expertise, and should clearly distinguish the limits of their medical knowledge where appropriate.”
Understand that as physicians, they will be taken as authorities when they engage with the media. That comes with the responsibility to ensure that the medical information provided meets a four-part test: That it is accurate; inclusive of known risks and benefits; commensurate with their medical expertise; and based on valid scientific evidence and insight gained from professional experience.