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Health professional misconduct hearings: How to dim the media spotlight

Health professionals charged with misconduct by their College should adopt a careful, strategic approach when dealing with the media, says Toronto health lawyer Elyse Sunshine.

“The main thing for health professionals to keep in mind is that, while it's unpleasant to have your situation covered by the media, you don't want to do anything to jeopardize your case, such as making a statement,” says Sunshine, partner with Rosen Sunshine LLP.

Unfortunately for health professionals, discipline hearings are public from the moment the referral is made to the Discipline Committee, she says.

The College places a notation of the allegations on its website, and if they are dramatic, or viewed as newsworthy, the spotlight can be on the health professional from the beginning, Sunshine adds.

“No one wants to be that person who finds themselves in the headlines, but the reality is these hearings are open to the public. So you cannot prevent the media from being there, or reporting on the story,” she tells  

Health professionals should follow some basic guidelines in dealing with the media, Sunshine suggests.

Never discuss the case with anyone, including journalists, without first getting your lawyer’s advice, she says.

Moreover, you should avoid making unscripted public comments on your case. Anything you say could be brought up at your hearing, Sunshine says.

“Whether it's with a friend in a chat on social media, or you give a statement to a reporter, none of that is privileged.” 

However, sometimes, it may be in your best interest to make a statement, Sunshine says. If you own a large multidisciplinary health facility, for example, and want to make sure it’s not decimated by your situation, letting the public know it’s still operating could be beneficial, she says.

“‘No comment,’ doesn’t always cut it. You have to think carefully about whether it is advisable to make a statement,” Sunshine says.

If you decide to issue a statement, get proper assistance from your lawyer on what you can and cannot say, she says. It’s also often helpful to get advice from a communications expert, Sunshine adds.

“You definitely need a strategy. It's not something the health professional should be dealing with on their own.”

Be prepared for the fact that sometimes disciplinary hearings take a long time and journalists may attend and report on what happened on a day when all the evidence is against you, Sunshine says.  It may be several days, weeks, or months before favourable evidence is presented.

“Hopefully, they will provide coverage on that day as well,” she says. “Of course, the one thing the health professional has to realize is they can't control the media and what reporters are going to write.” 

If you are unhappy with the accuracy or slant of coverage, consider carefully whether you want to approach the outlet involved to set the record straight, Sunshine says. However, understand that the resulting story also may not be to your liking, she says.

“Sometimes it's better to let sleeping dogs lie if it's not that big of a deal, or if you are simply not going to succeed in getting your narrative into print. You may consider just leaving it alone and, again, hoping the story goes away.”

Another uncomfortable aspect of coverage is that photographers or camera operators may want to capture your image entering or leaving the hearing.

“You want to hold your head high. You don't need to pose and smile for the picture unless you think there's a strategic reason for doing so. But you don't want to look shady or put your coat over your head,” Sunshine says.

Remember that interest will eventually wane, she says. “Often the best thing with these cases is that some other bigger story comes along and it gets out of the news quickly.”

Still, being in the spotlight can be very difficult, Sunshine says.

“Health professionals faced with this must remember to take care of themselves and try to realize that, yes, this is unpleasant, and particularly in the days of social media, these stories can hit hard and fast. But, they do die down, like any other story,” she says.

Some health professionals' practices have been hit hard by controversy. “But for the bulk of them — if they're cleared —  it’s a blip. It’s a very unpleasant blip, but it’s a blip just the same.”

There will be plenty of time to repair your reputation and practice if, hopefully, you are cleared, Sunshine says. “People do have short memories in that sense.”

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