Phil Hammond, doctor, comedian, journalist
You write Private Eye’s MD column. Which campaign are you proudest of?
Breaking the story of the Bristol heart scandal, which morphed into what was then the largest public inquiry in British history. It found that dozens of babies had died avoidably. It also proved that doctors can’t always be trusted to regulate ourselves in secret, medicine can behave like an old boys’ club where we cover up and protect each other, and whistleblowing is a very poor career choice. Steve Bolsin, the brave anaesthetist who went public, paid for it with his NHS career.
Worst medical cock-up?
I once repaired an episiotomy so badly there were two labia on one side, and one on the other. Fortunately, I asked for help. Unfortunately, the Australian registrar looked at what I’d done and said, “Fuck me, looks like the mice have been at this.” Fortunately, he then did a perfect repair.
Best NHS whistleblower?
I admire anyone who speaks up to expose serious wrongdoing. Doctors tend to be higher profile, but there are plenty of nurses and care workers who have done us a great service. And plenty of patients and carers have spoken up too. Julie Bailey from the Mid Staffs scandal is a shining example. Every medical scandal could be stopped in its tracks if we listened to the front line.
Why did you stand against Jacob Rees-Mogg in the last election?
I wanted to divert the debate from Brexit to health for all. The NHS and life expectancy were going backwards and nobody was talking about it. But I couldn’t get the Lib Dems and Labour to unite around a single candidate, the only way of beating Mogg given his majority. So I stood aside, they split the vote and waved him back in.
Government’s worst Covid failing?
The pandemic remains highly complex and I’m not sure I would’ve handled it better. However, the fact so many people in Whitehall broke their own rules by partying when everyone else was making huge sacrifices, and then tried to cover it up, has destroyed trust and will make future pandemic management very difficult.
What do you make of Steve Barclay, current Health Secretary? In a former life, he was very supportive of NHS whistle-blowers. He needs to keep listening.
Key takeaway from the pandemic?
Health is not what happens in hospitals. It is largely determined environmentally, economically, politically and socially. The pandemic happened because of the way we live on this planet. How eight billion of us hairy-arsed human primates can live safely and sustainably should keep us all awake at night.
You were a GP for two decades, what’s the future for general practice?
A bit grim. Health is relational, as much as medicational, and patients with chronic illness do better when they see the same health professional to build a relationship with. To save general practice, and the NHS, we need to put more attention into continuity of care for those who need it, whilst each of us takes as much responsibility as we reasonably can for staying well for as long as we can.
What area of health is most neglected?
Lifestyle medicine. It sounds naff and is easy to exploit, but we need to stop diving into the river of illness and pulling people out at great expense, and start wandering upstream and stopping them falling in. You don’t need Gwyneth Paltrow for that, but you do need your daily CLANGERS. Connect, Learn, be Active, Notice, Give back, Eat well, Relax, Sleep. They’re easy to do if you’re wealthy and happy, but try doing them if you’re living with debt, depression, domestic abuse etc. CLANGERS FOR ALL will be my mantra when I’m health secretary.
In 1994 you learned your father had killed himself, not died of a heart attack as you’d been told aged seven. How did that impact you?
Until then, I’d assumed I might die of a heart attack at 38. I did everything in a hurry, juggling jobs as a doctor, comedian, journalist, broadcaster, author and lecturer. I chose aggressive transparency to wash all of the NHS’ dirty linen in public, leaving someone else to pick up the pieces. When I found out the truth about my dad, I slowed down, became more compassionate and less angry. I moved from aggressive transparency to kind truth. And I started thinking a lot more about mental health.
Why do you want to write a book called How To Be a Good Patient?
I don’t want patients to be “good”, I want them to be included. I wrote a book called Staying Alive, where I interviewed patients and carers with complicated conditions about how they navigated the NHS. For most, it was bloody hard work and they were incredibly inspirational. It is possible to get great care, but you may have to work hard to find it, and that clearly benefits those who have the money, education, energy, support and time to do this.
What do you enjoy about stand-up comedy?
I love the freedom. There are no key performance indicators other than making people laugh. On the other hand, you are far more accountable as a comedian. If I don’t make people laugh, I don’t get bums on seats, but I could be a shit-awful doctor and still have a heaving waiting room. And you can combine the two. Comedy is a great way to make your medical mishaps earn a living.
Favourite doctor joke?
A couple in their 90s, married for 70 years, tell their doctor they’re going to get a divorce. “We’ve been thinking about it for a while, but we wanted to wait until the children were dead.”
Why are doctors so terrible at looking after their own health?
Aside from the suicides and narcotic addictions, doctors live longer than average, probably because of relative wealth and status. The older ones still love a drink but the young ones seem far more abstemious. However, we all hate being patients.
What advice would you give a medical student?
Work is limitless but time is limited. Prioritise sleep. The state of the NHS is not your fault. Learn when to say no. You can’t always give excellent care, but make sure it’s good enough. Speak up. And when the going gets tough, remember the three Ps. Pace yourself, Pamper yourself and Piss yourself laughing.
Phil Hammond juggled jobs as a doctor, comedian, journalist, broadcaster, lecturer