Originally published October 2014
Physicians are influential in many healthcare settings and sometimes in matters outside of medicine and healthcare. As a result, doctors can be called on to give medical opinions or officially represent an institution, specialty society, community of practice, disease-related association, or other volunteer association.
Consider the following case examples in which doctors may find themselves as a spokesperson:
A physician commenting to the media on youth mental health following a high-profile news story about a school homicide.
A doctor addressing the community about a disease outbreak at the local hospital.
A physician participating in the development of clinical practice guidelines with their medical specialty society.
A physician helping to raise money for a charitable organization focused on research and disease prevention.
In each of these situations, physicians likely have the expertise to act as the official spokesperson for their healthcare institution or for other activities. In their official capacity, doctors can play an important role in reaching a broad audience or a specific group, building positive relations with key stakeholders, connecting with important influencers, or helping to manage an institution's reputation.
Doctors can do much of the above by leveraging traditional or new media. This includes television and radio interviews, newspaper articles, online content, and social media. In all of these situations, physicians should communicate clearly and succinctly, and it is best to simplify medical information for easier understanding. This means making an effort to speak and write in plain, unambiguous language to avoid confusion or misinterpretation of information.
Physicians acting as advocates should avoid impulsive or malicious verbal or written commentary. They should also be aware that statements diminishing another person's reputation may be considered defamatory.
Leveraging social media
As reliance on social media expands, physicians may be asked to participate in social media outreach campaigns on behalf of an institution, a health-related organization, or another cause. It should be clear on whose behalf physicians are speaking — an organization, an institution, a volunteer group, or simply presenting their personal viewpoint. Doctors speaking on behalf of an organization should have the authorization to do so. Physicians should also provide on-topic posts and comments, and respect the specific boundaries, terms and conditions, and guidelines set by each site, social network, or community. Doctors should ensure any statements they make on social media are accurate, and should correct any misrepresentations or inaccuracies as soon as possible.
Physicians choosing to speak on behalf of a patient or a patient's family should obtain written consent in advance.
Following medical regulatory authority guidance
When speaking publicly or acting as an official spokesperson, physicians should follow any applicable policies or guidelines from their medical regulatory authority (College), institutions in which they practise, or regional authority guidance. For example, many Colleges have policies or guidelines pertaining to advertising and communicating with the public. Professional advertisements are generally permissible when they serve a legitimate purpose of providing the public with factual and relevant information about the nature of the physician's practice.
Protecting patient information
Physicians speaking publicly also need to be aware of patients' rights regarding the collection, use, disclosure, and access to their personal health information. Physicians always have an obligation to safeguard their patients' health information. Moreover, the Canadian Medical Association Code of Ethics requires physicians to, "Avoid public discussions or comments about patients that could reasonably be seen as revealing confidential or identifying information."1
Preparing for official spokesperson activities
In most situations, physicians authorized to act as spokespersons can draw on the following fundamentals and good practices2:
Identify yourself as a physician and establish who you are representing: an association, organization, or institution.
Obtain or anticipate the questions in advance and prepare answers.
Answer the questions clearly and concisely. If particular information cannot be divulged, just say so. Maintain patient and provider confidentiality.
Speak with confidence, authority, compassion, and empathy. Be aware of both verbal and non-verbal language such as posture, eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions. Use language that lay people can understand.
Offer to obtain answers to questions that cannot immediately be addressed, and do so.
Pause to organize ideas before answering questions, or to allow interviewers to record answers.
Share a few key messages with the interviewer. Try not to be sidetracked. Repeat key messages, when appropriate. Being consistent with your messaging will help protect your reputation and credibility.
Media interviews are valuable opportunities to convey important messages, and doctors involved in these activities should be appropriately prepared.
Communicating in a crisis
In crisis situations, physician spokespersons should answer media inquiries promptly and honestly, provide clear and factual answers, and try not to speculate when the situation is uncertain. It is also important to avoid becoming defensive or overly emotional.
Media training may be helpful for doctors who find themselves in the spokesperson role on a regular basis or for those who are concerned about their lack of media experience. Such training can boost skills to help anticipate questions, hone key messages, convey information clearly, build lasting relationships with the media, and garner positive coverage.
Canadian Medical Association, "CMA Code of Ethics," 2004. Accessed April 4, 2014 from: http://www.cma.ca/code-of-ethics
Sterling Communications, "Five steps to becoming a good spokesperson," 2012. Accessed April 25, 2014 from: http://sterlingpr.com/2012/02/5-steps-to-becoming-a-good-spokesperson/