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Charles Saatchi has nothing on me

You won’t believe this. Today, I saw a mum who attended with her manifestly well nine-month-old baby because he’d had a cough for three weeks. OK, you’ll believe that. But not this. When I gently popped the ‘so what brought you here?’ question, she replied, ‘We’re told to check cough after three weeks, aren’t we, because it could be cancer.’

Here are my suggested health campaigns

Well, yes, but not by me, or anyone else with functioning neurotransmitters. This episode neatly demonstrates that dumbass public health campaigns like ‘Be clear on cancer’ don’t just create an acutely coughing, spluttering stampede – they also leave a chronic legacy of inappropriate anxiety.

Given this obvious impact, though, maybe it’s time we turned the tables and used campaigns to our advantage. After all, among the countless ‘forward views’, rescue packages and prescriptions for change, there was a commitment that someone, somewhere, somehow, is going to educate a demanding, catastrophising, health-illiterate public into a glorious enlightenment.

Good luck with that. Or maybe I can help. Instead of fuelling the ‘you can’t be too careful’ fire, let’s do the opposite, by highlighting some areas parents can safely ignore. Think of the impact on acute and out of hours workload if we gave the key facts about just a handful of childhood presentations. So here are my suggested health campaigns, starting with one to prevent babies being brought to me as ‘query lung cancer’.

‘Child with a cough? Laugh it off.’ Cough in snuffly children is nature’s way of getting snot and germs out of the lungs, and can go on for weeks.

‘Junior burning up? Chill out.’ Fever is good – it’s the way the body fries bugs.

‘Diarrhoea? Don’t bring ‘em ‘ere.’ If your kids are squitty, that’s just their bowel flushing out bugs, and it can go on for a week.

Of course, these messages could be criticised as blunt, untested and dangerous. Which is exactly what I’m pitching for, because:

  1. They need to be snappy and sloganeering to fit in a headline/soundbite.
  2. Public health campaigns have never worried about nuance or context so why should these?
  3. Public health campaigns haven’t worried about any evidence base, so ditto above.
  4. If they result in the odd inappropriate reassurance of the pneumonic, meningitic or dehydrated, that just balances the unnecessary angst caused by previous campaigns.
  5. Scare stories caused by point 4 would get the media interested – and any publicity, etc etc.
  6. Somewhere in the blurb we’d say look, the message shouldn’t override common sense, and it’s not our fault if the public hasn’t any.
  7. However you look at it, there would be a net benefit in terms of reduced neurosis and freed-up appointments.

And I’d argue we could go further. I’d like to suggest other campaigns: ‘Tired all the time? And your point is?’; ‘Chest pain? Try Gaviscon first’; and ‘Life being a bitch? What the f**k do you think I can do about it?’

But let’s not sprint before we can crawl.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. You can follow him on Twitter @DocCopperfield