This site is intended for health professionals only

At the heart of general practice since 1960

Read the latest issue online

Gold, incentives and meh

Spare us the heartsink celebrity endorsement

Dr Pete Deveson

Dr Pete Deveson BLOG duo_3x2

We’ve all heard of heartsink patients, but what about Heartsink TV? I refer to the phenomenon where a GP’s evening viewing is ruined by the appearance of a well-meaning celebrity giving out counter-factual medical ‘advice’ which you realise with mounting horror will comprise the watercooler moment of your next days’ discussions with the worried well.

This week Celebrity Bake Off contestant Bill Turnbull announced he has prostate cancer, and like Stephen Fry and Ben Stiller before him, urged all men to see their doctor for testing.

One minute I’m relaxing en famille, idly wondering what Mary Berry’s up to these days, and the next I’m grinding my teeth with the realisation that the nations’ GPs will be shortly putting their index fingers to more use than Lord Kitchener and Tony Manero officiating a 1990s England second innings run chase.

Now I’m not simply complaining about the extra work created for me; I’m a big fan of all the above-named celebs and have no wish to kick them when they’re down, but the problem with raising awareness of disease without simultaneously raising awareness of the complexities of how we diagnose and treat it is you end up doing more harm than good.

These well-intentioned but ill-informed statements have real-world consequences

Older readers may recall the time when housewives’ favourite Richard ‘not even a real hamster’ Hammond resolved that, despite recognising there was absolutely no evidence it was harmful, he would not only decline to give his daughter the MMR, but dedicate a half hour of prime time TV to the decision; for a man who gleefully strapped himself into a rocket powered car to publicly announce he found the UK vaccination schedule too big a risk to bear was jaw-droppingly irresponsible.

Similarly, Stephen Fry’s modus operandi is revealing that widely-held beliefs are actually counter-intuitively far more complicated than they first appear; for him to repeatedly advise his millions of followers that all men should have regular prostate screening – the direct opposite of what the evidence actually recommends - without a klaxon going off and the camera cutting to Alan Davies pulling a face, struck me as Quite Ironic.

These well-intentioned but ill-informed statements have real-world consequences; the Hamster’s MMR scare-piece might have been just another pay cheque to him, but the anti-vax seeds he sowed ten years ago will be reaping a harvest of orchitis in today’s unvaccinated teenagers. And the latest evidence tells us that all the PSA tests we’ll send off in the wake of this month’s Heartsink TV will lead to an epidemic of overdiagnosis, WITHOUT PREVENTING A SINGLE DEATH FROM PROSTATE CANCER.

George Monbiot has shown it’s possible to go public about a prostate cancer diagnosis without recommending non-evidence-based testing. If we can squeeze the complex nuances of screening science into a short YouTube video, could we maybe do it on the Great British Bake Off?

Dr Pete Deveson is a GP in Surrey

Rate this article  (4.79 average user rating)

Click to rate

  • 1 star out of 5
  • 2 stars out of 5
  • 3 stars out of 5
  • 4 stars out of 5
  • 5 stars out of 5

0 out of 5 stars

Readers' comments (16)

  • Fab article Pete!

    Much like you, I have no issue with celebs raising awareness through their personal experiences - they have incredible influence to inform however there should an opportunistic disclaimer about red flags. I have thrown my remote control many-a-time at my poor TV for the furore that will follow....

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • The real problem is that we are not paid per consultation / problem. It does not matter whether money comes from taxes, direct from people’s pockets or a mixture. Until this happens the life of an NHS GP will only get worse.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Have to say salute Monbiot in the Guardian he smashed it and best of luck to him!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Scientific method is almost always too dull for the Media - iterative advancements requiring rigorous testing can't compete next to tabloid hyperbole.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Agree, had at least 8 men do not to ask for a prostate cancer test in past 10 days. All given the facts and figures, leaflets and time to explain the pros and cons and why not a screening test, only for all to have blood test done anyway. Even getting men in their 30s!!!!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Agree, had at least 8 men come to ask for a prostate cancer test in past 10 days. All given the facts and figures, leaflets and time to explain the pros and cons and why not a screening test, only for all to have blood test done anyway. Even getting men in their 30s!!!!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

View results 10 results per page20 results per page

Have your say