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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Why I chose…. To be a media doctor

Name: Dr Ayan Panja
Age: 40
Role: GP partner, Healthcheck presenter on BBC World News and resident doctor on BBC World News
Location St Albans, Hertfordshire, and London

Background

After house jobs I went straight on to my vocational training scheme at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. I loved my GP attachment at medical school so I knew it was my calling. I took a salaried GP job in Luton, after which I became the lead partner in a small practice in Haringey where I stayed for seven years. I became a seven-session partner at The Maltings in 2011, which is a three minute drive from my home. I have been doing broadcast work since 2006 alongside mainstream general practice.

Why I chose this work

After medical school I hankered after doing something which stimulated my creative juices, having been very active in the light opera society and in a band as an undergraduate. Broadcasting seemed to be a natural extension of that and I started out on Street Doctor in 2006 after seeing an email from Media Medics saying that the BBC were looking for outgoing doctors to engage the public. It went from a pilot to being commissioned very quickly and I’ve not looked back since.
 
I have been lucky in that I have had a steady stream of that kind of work, appearing on programmes on BBC1, 2 and 3, ITV1, Channel 5 and Discovery D-MAX. I think a GP´s core skill is communication, and media work allows you to use that skill to connect with an audience. Like many GPs, I also use Twitter (@Dr_Ayan).

Advantages

One of the main advantages about working in the media as a doctor is that you are forced to keep up to date. I currently work for the BBC every Wednesday, and one of my roles is to do a live TV slot on a global news programme called Impact on BBC World News. The topics covered can vary from the effects of smog on health, vitamin D, body mass index through to the latest study on blood pressure. It means I do a lot of extra reading, sometimes about the geo-political aspects of global health. In terms of income, it pays, but nowhere near as well as GP work.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not about the money. One of the main reasons for doing it is that I feel that I use a different part of my brain for media work which gives me a different buzz to clinical practice. I honestly believe that will help prevent burnout. I see it as a special interest – no different from my colleagues who do sessions in an allergy clinic, end of life care or occupational medicine.
 
I also enjoy being a presenter, working with a consummate team of professionals at the BBC Science Unit at New Broadcasting House.  The tasks of learning scripts the night before or reading off an autocue, doing voiceover, filming the ‘trailer’ to your show and presenting links are novel for a doctor - and still fun.

The other thing I love about the work is that we make films for the show, so I get to interview some of the world’s greatest innovators in health care. Guests on our show have included Professors Julian Leff, Joy Lawn and Vikram Patel. Being a GP adds an element of medical insight as the interviewer, and often I can ask questions which perhaps have a bit more clinical depth than those from a standard broadcast journalist.

Challenges

One of the challenges is colleagues’ perceptions of what you do.  Some doctors I have met, somehow feel that media doctors have inferior knowledge or cut corners with their GP work. I can tell you hand on heart that my patients are always the priority. My working days, like all the GPs in the practice, are long and demanding. I am often at the surgery for 12 hours a day, and do seven long clinical sessions a week. On the day or part-day I film at the BBC, I almost always go in to work before and after to do admin, deal with messages.  I have a thick skin now but that attitude used to bother me in the early days.

As someone who works in general practice I am naturally flexible, but to work in TV you have to be hyperflexible. Sometimes you get very short notice for opportunities which you simply have to turn down because you’re booked up with surgeries. Or you turn up to do your live slot having prepared a topic - only to be told by the news team that they’ve changed the health story you are covering from hydration in children to bird flu. You get better and better at doing things off the cuff but it is occasionally a bit stressful.

Another bugbear is being asked to give your expert opinion by journalists.  It’s impossible to do all of them. I probably get around 30 emails a month from freelancers asking for detailed answers to quite complex medical questions for an article in a magazine or paper. I almost always have to turn them down through lack of time.

Occasionally I will write a piece for a newspaper myself (if I feel passionately about something) or a campaign might really fire me up and I will give up my own time to help out. For instance I have been an ardent supporter of the Men’s Health Forum in years gone by, but embarrassed to say that this year Men’s Health Week completely passed me by as I have been so busy. (Sorry chaps…)

All in all I love my broadcast work which gives me immense pleasure. I am proud to work for the BBC, which, as an organisation, bears more than a passing resemblance to our beloved NHS, but I’ll save that for another article, or maybe even a TV programme.

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