Dr Christian Jessen: "The word 'exploitative' drives me mad"

Helen Lewis talks to Dr Christian Jessen about Twitter diagnoses, self-promotion and the best of the NHS.

Dr Christian Jessen lives an odd life. Quite regularly, people send him photos of their diseased body parts; others seek medical advice from him on Twitter, which he retweets with his response in capital letters before the question. So: “IT’LL KILL YOU IN AN HOUR OR TWO. @DoctorChristian how poisonous exactly?”
 
Dr Christian, as he prefers to be known, is the presenter of Channel 4’s prime-time hits Embarrassing Bodies and Supersize vs Superskinny. In the former, members of the public air their piles, warts and assorted deformities for the benefit of a grateful nation; in the latter, an overeater and an under-eater swap diets for a week in the “feeding clinic”.
 
Both shows have millions of viewers. As a result, Jessen is now our best-known telly doctor (and he is a real one, unlike Gillian McKeith and her internet PhD). But where a previous generation had Robert Winston talking through his trustworthy moustache about the miracle of life, Dr Christian is more likely to go to Magaluf, strip down to his pants and give everyone a pep talk about genital warts.
 
The big question is –why? Why would anyone submit to showing off their bunions, never mind their STI, on national TV? “Sometimes, they’ve been trying for ages to get help and they haven’t been able to get it,” he tells me over juice and pastries at a hotel in London. “Some of them are very political. Some of them are [saying]: ‘I want to promote my condition because I’ve had it long enough and my GP doesn’t seem to understand what it is.’”
 
Isn’t there an element of the freak show? “The word ‘exploitative’ drives me mad. These people have watched the show – it’s been going on for, what, seven series now?”
 
No one can accuse him of not practising what he preaches. He’s spoken about having a hair transplant and his struggle with body dysmorphia, which makes him see a puny weakling in the mirror, when he actually looks more like He-Man. Once, asked on Twitter if he’d ever had an STI, he simply replied: “YES”.
 
Hearing from so many people about their problems, he has a clear perspective on the health service. “The NHS is really, really good at dealing with acute problems, emergencies, major illnesses like cancers. Where it’s not so good is [treating] your ingrowing toenail, your small hernia, your haemorrhoids . . . But what other way is there of doing it, really?”
 
He certainly doesn’t think that the NHS should refuse treatment to immigrants, as some right-wing papers have suggested. “What I like about the NHS – and this is a contentious issue – is that if you’re a poor, African woman with HIV and you know you’re going to die in your country and your children are going to die, if you scrape the money together to get [here], they’ll look after you.” He pauses and flashes a wry, if expensively maintained, smile. “I don’t think we can afford to, but that’s a different issue.”
 
Unlike most doctors I have met, Dr Christian is unafraid of the internet and how it has changed patients’ expectations. He loves to tweet, despite the British Medical Association’s worries about the medium, and in one series of Embarrassing Bodies, people used Skype to consult him. He thinks that video calls could be a scalable solution for those who find it hard to visit their doctor in person (“Most GP questions are: ‘Should I worry? Shouldn’t I?’”).
 
He also doesn’t mind when patients turn up having researched their condition on the web. “I don’t sigh. Well, sometimes I do. Patients come in and they go, ‘Doctor, you gave me these tablets and I’ve just seen that according to the latest trial data they’re not necessarily the right ones.’ That can only be good for us.”
 
Medicine Man: unlike many other doctors, Jessen has embraced the internet. Photograph: Phil Fisk/Camera Press.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times