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Q&A with Doctor Phil


Q: For those who haven’t you on stage before what can they expect?

A: Access to a GP. It’s hard getting in to see a doctor these days, so I always bring my black bag, prescription pad and sick notes. I tend to get problems from the audience, rather than heckles, and my changing room is open for swabs during the interval. Most of the material has a medical theme but it’s accessible to everyone. And if you’re too shy to ask a question, you can always drop one into Dr Phil’s secret sac.

Q: You have a reputation for being out-spoken and explicit. Is this show as rude as your last?

A: It depends what you mean by explicit. I rarely swear, but I’m a firm believer in demystifying medicine and destigmatising illness. And I’ve worked in a sexual health clinic. So the material ranges from vulvas to vaccine scares. I do give the audience the chance to choose between political and anatomical humour, but then – like any other doctor – I just to do what takes my fancy.

Q: What inspired you to create the show?

A: The sixtieth anniversary of the NHS and imminent election has made me reflect on what’s happening to our health service (and what politicians have done to it) and I’m always trying to discover where all the money’s gone. £105 billion a year and the NHS is still no safer than bungee jumping. There’s also a lot of material about pleasure in the new show. Most of us spend our lives trying to balance pleasure and harm, and yet doctors very rarely mention the word, as if it’s too hedonistic or frivolous. But everyone needs to know how to pleasure themselves sensibly. Do you?

Q: It’s been a few years since you were last on tour. What have you been up to since?

A: I’m not just lazy. Most doctors who go into comedy give up the day job, but I’ve kept my hand in. Not just because I need the material, but also because I enjoy seeing patients. I hate all the bureaucratic crap and hoop jumping – most GPs spend half the consultation staring at the computer – but the beauty of not being a partner is that you can follow the patient rather than the money. I’ve just got a job working as a GP in a challenging area of south Bristol.
I do a regular show on BBC Radio Bristol, present the Music Group on Radio 4 and have just become a science presenter for The One Show, making films which all include an experiment. I also do a lot of writing (three books and a sitcom about a GP polyclinic called ‘Polyoaks’) and I’ve been Private Eye’s medical correspondent for nearly 20 years. I still teach medical students and do a lot of serious lecturing as well as just taking the piss. And I like being a Dad, so it takes a lot to drag me away from home.

Q: You have a DVD coming out soon. What’s that about?

A: The DVD was filmed at the Komedia in Bath, and is essentially two separate shows, one with satirical tips on staying healthy and surviving the NHS, the other more anecdotal confessions of my time as at medical school and as a junior doctor. There are lots of meaty revelations (falling asleep with a penis enlarger on, a visit to the clap clinic, assorted medical disasters, being summoned to a public inquiry) and it’s going to be released as Dr Phil’s Rude Health Show Act 1 and Act 2. The political stuff will come out before the election, the anatomical stuff in time for Christmas.

Q: Are you planning to write a new book? What other projects are in the pipeline?

I’d like to write a fourth book called simply ‘How to be a Patient’, because the bit missing from NHS reform has been the empowerment of patients. Labour talks about it endlessly but, in all the medical disasters I’ve exposed over the years in Private Eye, and on Trust Me I’m a Doctor, it was patients and relatives who spotted there was a problem long before the establishment saw fit to act. Just read the recent report of the Mid Staffordshire disaster. We need to encourage patients and front line staff to speak up, praising good care and spotting problems early so we can nip them in the bud. This sounds a bit of a rant, but I will stick some jokes in there.
I’ve also got a GP sitcom commissioned for Radio 4 (see above), and the fourth series of the Music Group, also on Radio 4, which is like a book group, but with one track each. I’ve learned how important music is for people’s mental health, but also how individual our tastes our. Telling someone you don’t like their favourite track is akin to telling them they’ve got an ugly baby. So as presenter I have to use my infamous GP communication skills.
On May 6 (probably election day), I’m giving evidence to the Bristol pathology inquiry, which was set up after concerns were sent to me at Private Eye about standards of pathology reporting in Bristol. It comes 18 years after I broke the story of the Bristol heart scandal in the Eye, which resulted in the largest public inquiry in British history. It saddens me that lessons from Bristol may not have been learnt, but I’ve realised over the years that change in the NHS happens incrementally, not overnight, and you have to keep consistently fighting for quality, safety and an open and accountable NHS, and we might get there before I need to use it.

Q: How often do you still practise as a GP?

A: I do a minimum of 6 hours a week seeing patients, and the same again keeping up to date. It doesn’t sound a lot but I’m hoping that when my other careers take a nose-dive, I’ll be able to do more. I’ve just got a job at a walk-in centre in an interesting part of south Bristol.

Q: You once stood for Parliament. Any chance of you going into politics in the future?

A: I hate adversarial party politics. There should be no left and right, just right and wrong. Get the best people in post and let them grow up and work together. Politics needs a more scientific approach where we pilot new ideas before implementing them across the board, and we’re not frightened to admit something didn’t work and try another tack. The over-promising and unrealistic expectations fostered by politicians makes them all ultimately fail. Big ideas are generally bollocks. Incremental change based on the best available evidence in a realistic time frame sound very dull, but it’s more likely to get results.
So yes, I’m interested in politics and try to be constructive. I’ve just recorded a DVD training programme for the Home Office to help spot radicalisation and prevent violent extremism in communities and public services. And I’ve chaired the last four conferences for the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). So I enjoy the debate, but I can’t see myself ever joining a party.

Q: You’re very passionate about patient rights. What in your opinion is the biggest challenge for the NHS in this regard?

A: Patient empowerment is the crucial bit of the jigsaw missing from NHS reform, and being heard is even harder if your illness isn’t sexy to the media. I’m a vice president of the Patients Association and a patron of the Herpes Viruses Association, and I try to raise the profile of those forgotten illnesses that don’t get a look in on the front of the Daily Mail. I also contribute to an excellent website called embarrassingproblems.com, which encourages people to come forward with their embarrassing lumps and leaks, rather than just sit on them.

Q: How does it feel being the only doctor/comedian still practising medicine?

A: Sadly I’m not. Dr Hilary gave his finest comic performance ever on ITV’s ‘Dancing on Ice’.

Q: You’re a regular on Countdown & a Scrabble enthusiast. What’s your favourite word?

A: Blissom. A blissful state of sexual heat. Although I might have made that up.

Q: Lastly Dr. Phil, what do you to relax?

A: See above. And if that fails, I’m very adept at relaxing in a gentleman’s way. Also, I’m proud to be acquainted with one wife, two kids, two dogs, two cats, two retired ponies, a rural community, the Ring O’ Bells, Bristol City FC, Bath Rugby, the Mendips, Lads v Dads football, a large book collection and an old trumpet. I’m currently murdering Louis Armstrong classics with the help of a Hal Leonard jazz play-along CD.