Dr Christian Jessen interview
Dr Christian Jessen is fast becoming the nation’s favourite doc, heading popular TV shows as well as interacting with his fans via twitter. Ask the doctor’s Deputy editor, Georgina Maric, caught up with him to ask about his star status both on and off our screens.
Wearing one of his trademark brightly coloured and beautifully cut striped shirts, Dr Christian Jessen, 36, cuts a dash and is brimming with health and vigour as he greets me warmly, kissing me on both cheeks. Unlike some celebrities, he doesn’t scan the room to see who’s spotted him, but focuses on the job in hand, which is to tell me why he thinkshe is so popular with viewers. ‘I’ve no idea, I can’t answer that,’ he says a little shyly. ‘I don’t think it’s about me, but I’m lucky that I’ve been given these programmes that viewers seem to like.’ But his warm affability, the fact that he’s always himself, and that he comes across as genuinely interested in other people, must have some bearing on why this general practitioner (still practising in Harley Street, in central London, specialising in sexual health) is doing so well in TV land.
This year, alone, you will have already seen him present series six of both Supersize vs Superskinny and Embarrassing Bodies on Channel 4. Then there’s Embarrassing Bodies: Live From The Clinic, where Dr Christian, along with Dr Dawn Harper and other specialist experts, give patients quick, on-the-spot consultations, advice and sometimes diagnosis using cutting-edge technology.
Did he think at the beginning that the shows he presents would be so well received? ‘I never think they will be successful, because they are always experimental at first and none of us really know,’ he said. ‘I am particularly sceptical about my ability because I’m very critical of myself. It’s the programmes that people like, though. Everyone is fascinated by diet, which I think is why Supersize… does well. Embarrassing Bodies is pretty much what it says on the tin – people are a bit voyeuristic and want to know about other people’s health and problems. There are lots of weird and wonderful diseases on the show – it’s quite graphic but it’s also feel-good. People get better and that’s great. There is so much nasty television on at the moment, where people are told they are rubbish by judges, I get sick of those. In my programmes, people come in unwell and go out a little happier. I do what I do and if people like that, I can’t explain why, I’m just glad they do.’
In the end, he reluctantly decides that it could be down to ‘maybe people thinking I’m kind, being understanding and listening when people express their own feelings and fears. And I do have the luxury of having a lot of time while the average GP only gets 10 minutes!’
Doctor on call
As well as seeing Dr Christian on Channel 4’s Dispatches (aired in March) about junior doctors’ hours which are ‘still excessively long’, we’ll be seeing a lot more of the doc. A Live From The Clinic show will be on in May, where people Skype in their health problems on air. ‘It’s proving really popular because it’s so groundbreaking and innovative,’ says Dr Christian. ‘I do believe it is one of the ways in which medicine is going to go in the future. It won’t be long before GPs will use televisual medicine, modern technology and even social media. On the show, people Skype in and we broadcast their health question onto a massive screen in the studio. We discuss what the condition might be and what they might be able to do about it.
‘Doing it in this televisual way has its limitations obviously – nothing is a perfect substitute for a proper face-to-face consultation with a doctor. But as a quick GP consultation it is very plausible. Think about people who can’t travel, who live far away from the surgery in rural areas, or whose GP is booked up. All a GP would need to do is put aside an hour a day and in that time he or she could get through quite a lot of consultations. Some GP practices are starting to do it but I do find that medicine is slow to take up new innovations. It’s because doctors are taught “traditionally” and to pass your exams you have to do things in a very set way, which is ridiculous. Whatever you need to gather the information is fine with me, but in medicine, unfortunately if you are not doing something in that exam- taught way and you do something different, everyone starts to feel a bit nervous about it. Skype is a classic example of that because it breaks all the rules of medicine. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do things like that. Even if it is a lump, which you wouldn’t be able to examine properly, you can get the patient to look for it themselves and report back. Even with a painful stomach, you can triage the patient and see if it’s urgent or if it is a bit of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Life has changed and medicine needs to adapt to fit in. On Live From The Clinic we do it in a very “television way” so it’s a quick in, quick out, chop, edit. It is different to how a doctor would do it in his practice, but it shows it can be done. The programme has won awards for being innovative – and that’s great.’
Don’t be shy
But what we all really want to know is who chooses to go on Embarrassing Bodies and why? ‘We get all different types of people on the programme as you do with patients in real life. They have their reasons – some people want to be on television, some people really like the show and want to see the doctors who present and get our views on things. Other people have lost faith in their own GP because they haven’t really got anywhere and haven’t been helped very much. They simply want to know if we can offer them anything more. And some have a condition that they want to raise a bit more awareness about, so they come and talk about it on television and show other people what it’s like. Most are not extroverts looking for attention but they’ve made a compromise in their head and say “OK, I’ll do it on telly because I want to get it sorted”. It’s a deal they make with themselves.
‘There is a small group of people in the media who disagree with the concept,’ he continues, ‘who really dislike the programme and the words they use, drive me up the wall – they say “you exploit them”. It makes me furious – the word exploit is completely misused. These people contact us, we don’t contact them. They have seen the programme before, they know exactly what’s involved and they say they do want to take part. That’s not exploitation. It’s just a lazy journalist’s way of dissing something – even though it works.’
His favourite programme of last year was Drugs Live, which was another Channel 4, pioneering show that he presented alongside veteran broadcaster, Jon Snow, 65.
‘It was looking at the very latest research into ecstasy use and we used the up-to-the-minute technologies. There was a real live debate around its use and it was on a subject that I feel very strongly about – that drugs laws aren’t quite right because we are losing important therapies as a result of knee jerk reactions against illegal drugs, meaning we can’t even research into their misuse. The programme and its revolutionary format got a really good response.’ The live element is something he always prefers to pre-records. ‘You get the adrenalin buzz and whatever you say you can’t go back on, you have to respond off the cuff and you need to have your knowledge at hand. It’s a bit like being a practising doctor and I think that’s why I like it. And you don’t have to go back and do things again. I’m still not used to the side of television when you spend an awful lot of time hanging around, not doing very much and then doing things repeatedly from different angles, which to me can be really tedious at times.’
Because of the proliferation of television appearances, Dr Christian has also been asked to appear on several comedy and panel shows. ‘They ask me periodically to do these things – Would I Lie To You, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Celebrity Juice, which I really enjoy doing. There is a fine line between being a celebrity and being a doctor, though, and I try first to be a doctor, but if they are asking, why not? They are fun shows and why shouldn’t I go on occasionally? I’ve got to know some really nice people like comedians and presenters, such as Sarah Millican, 37, Jimmy Carr, 40, and Alan Carr, 36, and they are very intelligent, bright people and really savvy with the act they put on.
‘Last year, I did a show called Stand Up To Cancer, which was a live telethon for Cancer Research UK and it was myself, Davina McCall, 45, and Alan Carr all presenting together. Davina was full of energy but I was quite nervous, basically because I’m a doctor and I don’t normally do that sort of thing. It was a six and a half hour live, prime time show, which is massive and we had to keep the energy up to make people donate money. I was pacing around backstage nervously and Alan was there as well but he was sitting down in a corner absolutely white as a sheet looking really terrified. I asked him if he was worried and he said, in fact I won’t quote what he said exactly, but it was along the lines of “I’m very nervous, yes!”. It was so nice for me because here was a guy who has been on our television screens forever, who is very confident and entertains huge audiences. And there he was sitting there feeling nervous, just because of the enormity of the show. He told me that it’s awful up to the point when you step on stage and then all your nerves go away and you’re off, and that’s exactly how I’ve always found live telly. It was very reassuring for me that someone was going through the same thing. In the end it raised £8million which broke records for a first telethon.’
Dr Christian’s increasing fame and ‘open to everyone’ programmes mean that he is constantly approached by the public when he’s out and about. ‘I was in a busy taxi queue and a builder chap came running up and said: “My missus loves your show – I’ve got chlamydia and I just wondered what are the chances of passing it on to her?” How wonderful is that? Here is a builder, the type of person who would never go to his own GP, who felt he could ask me about his condition in public. How nice!’
And it’s not just on television that Dr Christian is proving popular – on social networking site, Twitter, he has an astonishing 200,000 followers and counting. He’s on it all the time answering people’s (often strange) medical questions at every opportunity.
‘I love it because people who watch your shows can interact with you. There’s a definite art to Twitter. My rules are that questions have to be public and I have to be able to answer with the question in the reply. I never diagnose either. I used to get a lot of stick from doctors saying it’s completely inappropriate but 200,000 followers later its popularity is proven and people do benefit from it. I choose questions carefully because I want people to get something out of it and to be entertained. I think it’s the way forward for GPs, too – patients could contact you with little questions and it would also be brilliant for pharmacists as they could answer drugs related questions really quickly.’
And this techno-savvy doc has no problem with people coming into his clinic armed with print-outs from the internet. ‘They have been thinking about their symptoms,’ he says. ‘So many people come in and say: “I don’t feel well” but don’t have any more information where as if they say: “I’ve been online, I have the same symptoms and I think it might be this.” You can say yes, or no, it isn’t that for the following reasons and they understand more about the diagnostic process.
Sometimes they come up with treatment options, too and that’s great for us doctors because it keeps us on our toes. On the downside, some look at the worse case scenario and get themselves in a complete state, convinced they’ve got something incurable. But even that’s fine because the doctor can explain why it’s not that condition.’
And with that, the lovely doc with the pecs has to go back to his patients, but you’ll be seeing lots more of him in the coming months, on a television screen near you.
Picture: Terry Benson
First published in Ask The Doctor with Dr Christian Jessen