Dr Phil Hammond Interview: The GP whistleblower

Dr Phil Hammond says teaching people usually far outweighs what the NHS can do for them.

Do you still practise as a GP and, if not, do you miss it?

I worked as a part-time GP for 21 years, but in 2012, I decided to try something different and started a job treating young people with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy.

I absolutely love it. I still use my GP skills and values, but I have 90-minute consultations. When you have the time to deal with complex chronic disease properly, it becomes much more satisfying - we manage to get many young people better.

General practice is the toughest job in the world because you have to deal with high levels of risk, complexity and expectation in such a short space of time.

I don't think I could go back to 10-minute consultations, so unless we see sense and give GPs much longer with their patients, I won't be returning. But I do miss the camaraderie, teamwork and variety.

Why did you write Staying Alive and what is it about?

I wanted to write a book to help people get the right NHS care, but I also wanted it to be pro-NHS and not a manual for assertive, educated consumers to work the system at the expense of others.

So I spent three years collecting stories from patients and carers from all sorts of backgrounds, who wanted to share their experiences, advice and tips with others. The tough choices they made in their everyday lives served them well when making tough choices about healthcare.

But what struck me most was how the same principles apply to getting the most from life and getting the most from the NHS.

When the government's Foresight project reviewed the evidence for what keeps us mentally well, it came up with CLANG:

  • Connect with others and gain the emotional ballast of being part of a community.
  • Learn and feed your curiosity.
  • Be active every day in mind and body.
  • Notice the world around you and discover the joy of being as well as doing.
  • Give back to others.

When I read the patient stories of those who had managed to get good NHS care, I realised they were also CLANG-ing. They were connecting and building good relationships with the people treating them, and with charities, other patients and online support. They were learning as much about their illness and options as they could, being as active as they could in managing and monitoring their illness, noticing new or worsening symptoms, and speaking up about any concerns.

They were also giving back to those caring for and treating them.

What do you enjoy most about your Private Eye column?

I enjoy giving a voice to NHS whistleblowers. In 23 years, I've been privileged to meet some incredibly brave and inspirational staff who stood up for what was right and paid a heavy price, and some equally inspirational patients and relatives, to whom such awful things have happened, you just want the truth to be told so others don't have to suffer.

The reality check is that although I have never once been sued for getting a whistleblower story wrong, I have never once been able to get a whistleblower back their job.

Do you still harbour ambitions to become an MP?

No. I hate tribal politics. I would rather nail my testicles to the table than listen to manufactured adversarial debates about the NHS.

Politicians of all parties need to grow up and collaborate to build an NHS based on compassion, evidence, joined-up care and adequate resources. Until they do, I'll be giving party politics a wide berth.

However, politics is ultimately about the compassionate and responsible use of power. So I will continue to campaign for a bidet revolution in the NHS, from the bottom up.

Which single change would best improve the NHS?

See above. Unless we have compassion, collaboration, trust and transparency at the top of the NHS, it's hard to see how it will really take off at the bottom.

One other huge improvement would be to teach people that what they can do for themselves usually far outweighs what the NHS can do for them: 70% of what we can do to prevent disease, and prevent it getting worse, is down to our lifestyle.

Medicine contributes a relatively modest 30%, and many tests and treatments are of marginal benefit.

Most lives need living, not medicalising, and for many symptoms you'd be better off with a dog than a doctor. So perhaps pets on prescription would be my game changer for the NHS. Especially ones that need walking.

  •  Phil Hammond is an NHS doctor, author, broadcaster and comedian. Download our iPad edition for an exclusive excerpt from his new book, 'Staying Alive - How to Get the Best from the NHS', published by Quercus on April 2.

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