Every organisation has adopted new ways of working to keep people safe from Covid-19. We are all now familiar with virtual consultations and virtual meetings with colleagues, but would you know what to do if you are called to attend a virtual hearing?
After two years supporting practitioners in this position, Dr Sissy Frank shares some important lessons.
Online video conferencing technology made it possible for doctors’ fitness-to-practise proceedings, NHS England performance hearings and even inquests to continue during the pandemic, helping to prevent stressful delays and a huge backlog in cases.
Virtual hearings have other benefits too – they may feel less intimidating and eliminate the need to travel long distances, which means they are likely to continue in some form.
For example, The Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) has now moved to a mixed approach of virtual and in-person hearings in Manchester, depending on the case.
The Medical Defence Union broadly welcomes this approach, especially in less complex cases where the facts are uncontested.
But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because you are sitting in the comfort of your own home or office rather than appearing in person: it is just as important to prepare and present yourself professionally.
Your reputation and even your livelihood could still be on the line.
What to do before the hearing
Ensure you have all the case documents
Ask for these to be sent to a secure email address, preferably in encrypted form.
If possible, use an electronic device associated with your professional practice, rather than a personal one.
Read through material and if you feel something is missing, tell the organiser in good time or speak to your medico-legal adviser.
Test your tech
Download and familiarise yourself with the relevant app to allow you to join the meeting before the day of the hearing. Test your headphones, microphone and video and turn off distracting notifications during the proceedings.
Ensure your laptop or tablet is fully charged and ensure you are close to a charger and electric socket, just in case.
Consider the background
If you are in a clinical location such as an office or clinic room, make sure no confidential information is visible.
Make sure the room is not affected by external noise. Choose somewhere quiet and, if necessary, lock the door to prevent interruptions.
Check the camera angles
Position yourself and your webcam so you will appear central within the frame and can make eye-contact with the other participants. If you need to look away, for instance to look at your notes, you should explain this to the participants.
Casual clothing may look disrespectful and could potentially put you in the wrong mindset for the occasion.
Consider your entire outfit rather than just your top half – you never know whether you may have to stand up.
What to do during the hearing
Log on early
This will give you time to flag up any problems and ensure you are ready. Ensure you have all the relevant documents to hand and have a glass of water close by if you know you are going to have to speak.
If the hearing is lengthy, there should be bathroom breaks. But do take a comfort break before the hearing begins, as it’s better to ensure you are comfortable from the start.
Mute your mic
Unless you are speaking, mute your microphone to prevent feedback or unwanted noise during the hearing. You may be asked to turn off your video if you are not speaking, so make sure you know how to do this and turn it back on when necessary.
Be aware of your body language
You may be sitting on your own, but it’s better to behave as if you are in the room in person. Consider your posture and expressions.
Speak clearly to the camera
Keep documents and notes in front of you. You may also find it helpful to mark any relevant pages for ease of reference.
Let the panel know if you are having to refer to your notes so they understand why you may be looking away.
Answer the question
When it’s your turn to speak, answer the questions put to you and don’t be afraid to ask someone to repeat or clarify something if you’re not sure you have understood the question or if you miss what has been said; for instance, due to technical problems.
Keep in touch with your representative
If you have someone to support or represent you, they should be able to join the meeting remotely as well.
Agree with them in advance how you will keep in contact with each other during the meeting, such as by messages on a different device.
Don’t leave until you are told
Once the hearing has ended, wait for direct instructions before logging off. Make a note of any further actions required so you can attend to these as soon as possible after the hearing.
If you need assistance with a virtual inquest, GMC or disciplinary hearing, seek advice from your medical defence organisation. They’ll be able to guide you through the process from the start and can help you best represent yourself.
Dr Sissy Frank (right) is a medico-legal adviser at the Medical Defence Union