Interview: Embarrassing Bodies’ Dr Christian Jessen

Hi Dr Christian! What are you up to at the moment?

I’m filming another series of Embarrassing Bodies which seems to be this ongoing juggernaut of a series – we seem to just be doing more and more and more. It’s doing so well, it’s extraordinary!

Have you been surprised by the success of Embarrassing Bodies?

I have to say yes, if I’m honest. I remember making the first series and thinking – who’s going to be interested in looking at verruccas and piles?! For GPs, it’s the sort of things you see all day long that don’t excite you much, really, and I thought people might find it dull. But I got that quite wrong! I try and approach the show with a sense of humour but without ever laughing at the patients or their conditions, which is also part of its success. It’s not preachy: it’s entertaining.

What is the worst thing you’ve ever had to deal with?

Well I don’t recoil very much from things, but I remember seeing the most horrendously advanced case of hidradenitis suppurativa, which is a kind of chronic rotting infection of the sweat glands. His whole armpits were rotting away and I remember him lifting up his armpits and great lumps of skin were dropping off and he had blood pouring down his sides. I mean, that was pretty horrific.

How important are your shows for the British public?

I see Embarrassing Bodies as a much needed role – I’m now the face of Channel 4 health, and while it was all a bit of fun initially, it had to happen sooner or later. Medics are pretty crap at communicating generally, and if we have managed to get messages out, it has been done in a very dry and very preachy way. I’m very much committed to bringing health information and advice to the public in a way that they will actually listen to and get something out of, and that’s why I’m so proud of Embarrassing Bodies: because it’s done just that.

You often use Twitter to discuss topical health issues. Would you encourage others in the public eye to do the same?

Absolutely- I think Twitter’s a great thing, I’m a really big fan. People often accuse me of starting arguments on it but I choose to respond to people – I could just leave it. I like getting people thinking and debating and discussing, and doing so really gets the public interacting and debating heavy issues like changing the abortion laws. Admittedly, I play devil’s advocate sometimes and take a view I know people will object to just to invite comments, but again, that means we’re talking about public health and raising awareness.

Has anyone ever asked for an autograph after a medical exam?

Always! Normally they have the consultation and say ‘ooh, can I just get a quick photo with you?’ That’s part and parcel really, it’s something I’ve come to expect.

Do you think you could ever go back to being a specialist full time and end your television commitments now that you’ve had a taste of fame?

I’ve always said that my clinic comes first and my doctoring work takes priority – TV does not. First and foremost, I trained to be a doctor: I like being a doctor and I like seeing my patients. The TV came along afterwards as a rather fortuitous bit of fun which I now genuinely see as a useful role, but if I have to go back to clinic and do what I’ve always done, I will. And that’s that!

What’s your work schedule like?

It varies hugely, I do two days a week in clinic, and the other days vary enormously. At the moment, there’s a lot of filming and also corporate work, going to work, doing radio interviews or charitable awareness campaigns – a big range of stuff. That’s another thing I love about my job – it’s just fantastic. I’m never doing the same thing over and over again which keeps it interesting.

What has been your career highlight so far?

I think my career highlight would be winning a BAFTA for Embarrassing Bodies. To have a show like that recognised, you can’t ignore that really. And diagnosing little Charlotte with her verruccas too, that was a highlight, and saying we need to look into your immune system, that was a life saving diagnosis that no one else had thought of. It’s very hard to name just one?

You used to work in Kenya and Uganda – how does that compare to what you do now?

Life in Kenya and Uganda is hard: kids die, there are no facilities, but now I work in a private practice where every drug is available to me – it’s a very different world. It still influences my work now and how I feel about the conditions there.

What is filming your shows like?

With Embarrassing Bodies you always feel like your clinical skills are on test to the nation and we don’t know what we’re going to get. The advice we give is what comes out of our heads at the time – there’s no briefing on what patients we’ll be seeing. It’s like doing your medical finals all over again but on TV. I like all of it. Supersize is a totally different kettle of fish: it’s not me diagnosing but dealing with very deep seated psychological problems with overeating and undereating but all the shows are equally fascinating, I can’t say I like one any more than the other. Essentially what I’m doing is imparting wisdom to anyone who watches my TV shows and quite frankly that’s good enough for me.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

The best part of my job is being able to influence so many people and having a platform to deliver a message – no other doctor in the country has that privilege. That’s just massive – it’s hugely exciting, and also daunting. It’s a wonderful opportunity to really do some good – by talking about sexual health and HIV you can reach out in a way that no media campaign really can which is amazing. The worst is the long hours with travelling – it seems quite glamourous on the surface. We’re talking twelve hour days with travel either side and spending a lot of time alone in hotel rooms. Then of course the whole being recognised all the time and being asked medical questions wherever you go – that’s probably the less exciting side.

What do you do to relax?

I’m a gym freak actually: I exercise a lot and I find that very therapeutic. I’m a big music fan and I trained as a classical musician so I listen to a lot of music. I’m a bit of an old man inside really!

What was your university experience like?

Bloody awful, I hated it. I thought medicine was really badly taught, some of the consultants clearly didn’t want to be there and made life miserable, they harassed, they humiliated – there were some great times as well and some great consultants, but the bad ones really marred everything else. And even at the time I said ‘God, I’m going to make sure I never ever get like this’ and will inspire young people to learn medicine because it’s actually a very interesting subject, and not intimidate, humiliate and abuse them. It was tough, actually, I didn’t enjoy it hugely.

Did you enjoy the social side of your degree?

I went to UCL so I had the whole of London to play with – it was great! I’m a Londoner born and bred but I’d been away at boarding school for most of my life so university was really the first time I was back in London and going out doing things. That made it all worthwhile, I have to say.

Is there something about you that people don’t know?

I bet people don’t know that I can play the bagpipes quite well. I learnt them when I was at school – not many people know that!

Would you like to start a family in the future?

No, I’m not in any way paternalistic at all: I have no desire to have kids. I’m absolutely adamant. My mother was never really interested in kids and I’m certainly not.

Do you think people in the public eye should be open about their sexuality?

It’s a tricky one – I think honesty is always the best approach but that doesn’t mean you need to wave flags loudly and shout about it. I am a doctor and my sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with it, therefore I don’t really make a big deal of it. But if I’m asked, I’m honest and I think that’s the difference. If you ever got labelled a gay doctor you’re screwed, it’s a disaster, because your sexuality is irrelevant to medicine.

Some people see you as the face of STD warnings in Britain. How does that make you feel?

If I have done anything to make people more aware of sexual health or to change their behaviour in any way then of course I’m delighted and hugely proud because not much else has worked in that area before so I will wear that label – what more can you do – that’s massive. Wow!

What health message would you like to give to the nation?

Take an active interest in your body – learn about it and the way it works, because you’re going to be the first person to notice when it goes wrong. By the time someone else notices it’s gone wrong, it’s probably too late. Learn where your lumps and bumps are, learn what the funny sounds mean, what your tummy feels like, what your head feels like…you’re in the best position to notice what’s happening. Be body aware.

What are your views on student binge drinkers?

Honestly, I would say when you’re a student enjoy yourself as a student and don’t worry about things like that. The truth is, the vast majority don’t do any damage and once they stop being students and get it out of their system they calm down. I’m not going to start preaching to students about drinking less because a) they won’t listen and b) the majority gets it right or learns from their mistakes and that’s the best way to go.

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