I’m a Reality TV doc – and I’m not embarrassed

My patient starts to cry. Tears roll down her cheeks as she tells me how years of being obese, then bariatric surgery, with very successful results, had left her with one more unexpected problem. Well, two actually. Droopy breasts. With the massive reduction in subcutaneous and mammory fat, loss of skin elasticity, and excess skin, she had been left with breasts which had lost their shape, and, like her mood, had slipped even further. Her husband, ever doting, sits with her and strokes her arm gently as she tells me about her sense of failure, and embarrassment. Her great hopes of being surgically reduced to a slim svelte figure had been dashed. This is, she tells me, her last chance of getting something done, of getting her life back. Undaunted by the mounting pressure I offer to examine her. “Sure” she replies, “but not with him here”. Her poor husband looks forlorn but knows the score, knows this is non negotiable, her embarrassment too acute. He stands up and steps out of the room. She starts to remove her gown, the cameras continue to roll, capturing every moment. Her husband is nowhere to be seen but millions of others watch every detailed clinical moment. Welcome to the world of TV medicine.
I’ve been offering my opinions and advice on TV and radio for some years now. Sometimes highbrow, sometimes low. After a slot on Radio 4’s Today programme a friend once gave the greatest complement, “You actually argued with John Humphreys!”. But I’ve also faced criticism. Appearances on less prestigious programmes have lead to cries of “Voyeurism! Distasteful! But I don’t agree and I don’t care. Being a TV doctor is both a pleasure and a privilege. 
Everyone has the right to be informed, to be health aware, and to be able to make the right choices. But not everyone listens to Radio 4, or tunes in to Horizon. The vast majority of people, in one sense the very people I would hope to communicate with, watch populist TV, and listen to local radio stations. And that’s where the power of broadcasting really lies. Being able to reach millions through the media of TV, to inform, to educate, and yes, to entertain, is a powerful tool. I still get emails from all around the world from documentaries I’ve made more than 10 years ago, thoughtful, provocative, stimulating emails; the discussion continues long after the show.
 I’ve heard it said that health is the new religion, that TV is the new church, and the congregation flocks to the next service in their millions. Jeremy Kyle’s Emergency Room, a reality based medical show on ITV is proving to be a huge hit with millions of people, young and old. Taking the at times brash and invasive but hugely popular TV personality of Jeremy Kyle into a clinical setting with white-coated serious looking doctors and nervously smiling volunteer patients has been an immediate success with viewers. Jeremy Kyle draws them in. Patients tell the story. And the viewers listen, learn, talk, and become much more aware of the possibilities and perils of medical intervention. The doctor is a mere catalyst to the process. 
So why would anyone subject themselves to medical scrutiny on daytime TV? Why would anyone share their deepest secrets, and show their most intimate bits to millions of viewers? In my experience there are several reasons. There are, let’s be frank, some who would do anything just to get on TV, to have their 10 minutes of fame. But there are also many, the majority in fact, who are desperately seeking answers to worrying medical problems. Often it’s a real or perceived lack of care from their existing doctors that spurs them on, or a simple lack of NHS provision for their particular problem. Lipodoema for example, painful swollen fat-cell invaded legs, nothing to do with being overweight, but painfully debilitating. There’s only one treatment. Liposuction. The NHS won’t pay, and there’s no way my typical patient could afford to go privately. “Maybe, just maybe, if I go on TV I might be able to get something done” would be a typical conscious or sub-conscious driver. And then there is the very noble “show and tell” patient. Someone who has a rare disease, who wants to raise awareness, raise support, increase understanding and maybe improve care provision. Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva. Heard of it? No, neither had I. But being asked to talk knowledgebly about it on TV is a massive stimulus to speed reading. Only 1 in 2 million people suffer from it; a gradual ossification of soft tissues leading to the sufferer becoming incased in a suffocating, paralysing skeletal shell. To share screen time with a beautiful and incredibly brave young woman who just wanted to let the world know a little bit about her life with FOP was both humbling and inspiring. 
So yes, being a part of JK’s ER was at first a bit daunting. But it has become a very rewarding experience, for everyone concerned. Willing patients are treated with respect, sensitivity and compassion, by Jeremy himself, who is both caring and reassuring to them all, on and off camera, but also by the huge off-screen production team. And it is more than anything, I believe, of huge benefit to the public’s understanding of health, what matters, what doesn’t and why. 
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