What if Cecil the Lion’s Killer Worked at Your Practice?

August 11, 2015

As a doctor, your profession makes you more newsworthy and you are held to a higher standard. Not knowing this can cost you.

The recent outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American dentist shut down a successful practice within 24 hours and made the practice owner an international pariah.  Medical practice managers, owners, and executives need to be more aware of their positions as highly visible and newsworthy public figures than ever before. They have to have crisis management plans in place to protect their businesses.

As we’ve seen in the recent case of Cecil the lion, bad news related to your practice or not, travels fast and often doesn’t require factual accuracy, a conviction or even proof, to negatively affect you. I’d guess that most readers don’t know too many details about the incident, the accused hunter or likely even his name, but I’ll bet you know what he does for a living. That’s at least partially due to the fact that the vast majority of the headlines included the fact that he was a dentist. For example, “Minnesota Dentist Named as Killer of Zimbabwe’s Famed, Human-Loving Cecil the Lion."

Yes, Your Profession Makes You More Newsworthy

As a doctor, you have a high profile and are assigned an assumed standard of conduct. When it’s combined with the threats of increased regulation, liability, media scrutiny, and the speed and destructive effects of bad or false information on the internet, it puts you in a visible and often vulnerable position for things that members of the public do every day with little or no media attention or mass exposure. Many doctors incorrectly assume that negative publicity will be limited to issues related to their practice. A review of news articles that cite doctors and executives being, sued, arrested, or investigated covers a wide spectrum and extends in some cases even to members of their family and their employees. The news loves to throw in, “A prominent local doctor (or businessman, CEO, etc.) was arrested tonight…,” to add sizzle to their steak.

Yes, You Are Held to a Higher Standard and This Affects Your Privacy, Choices, and Financial Solvency

Whether you think this is “fair” or not, it’s a fact, so don’t do things, or allow others to do things that you can control, that place you and your business in a negative light or create actual liability. Even a simple altercation with a neighbor or a DUI becomes newsworthy when a successful doctor is involved. This is even more so if that individual is prominent in their community. Everyone tunes in to see if it was their doctor or dentist when bad headlines break. Do not ever assume that you are out of eyeshot or that you can’t be the next viral video.

Common examples of things that will get you on the news and detract from your income, credibility, and professional standing:

• Offense involving sexual conduct or misconduct, especially with a patient. This seems to be a no-holds-barred category and you could be named in cases involving the conduct of employees or relatives that you are not involved in;

• Any drug or alcohol-related behavior or offense like a DUI and including incidents while traveling, flying, or on vacation.  In the age of smartphones and social media, assume anything you do in the company of others can and will be recorded and shared, often in a way that is edited and out of context.

• Investigative reports by the media or government, law enforcement, or task force investigation on issues like billing, prescriptions, or ID theft. Regardless of the outcome, just being mentioned can cast a negative light on your business.

• Being publicly connected with controversial social or political causes, symbols or candidates. 

This last one is a point of frequent and passionate objection by many successful people, who feel that curtailing their speech and activities outside their medical practice violates their freedom in a variety of ways. “I can say what I want, I’m An American. No one tells me what to do” and of course, the famous, “If they don’t like they take their business elsewhere” are all common responses to cautions on this issue. You’re right, but if you make a living dealing with the public, you are increasingly going to have to choose between that “freedom” and staying in business. In our next installment, we’ll provide some specific tips for managing this kind of crisis and associated financial and legal risks.