Medi-tainment: Do TV patients get a bum deal?

'Medi-tainment' shows focusing on embarrassing ailments attract huge ratings. Meg Carter wonders if this is more exploitation than education

So, you're feeling under the weather. You're tired, your joints ache, and you've a bit of a rash. Do you a) soldier on, hoping it will soon pass, b) visit your pharmacist or c) call your local GP? If the team behind a groundbreaking new Channel 4 series starting this week is right, soon there'll be a fourth option; d) consult your TV.

Diagnosis Live from the Clinic, which starts a six-week run tomorrow night, is a medical TV show with a difference. Made by the team behind Embarrassing Bodies, it sets out to go further than just simply showcasing medical conditions. The aim is for doctors to diagnose ailments in front of the nation, live on TV. In each edition of the weekly, one-hour show doctors will offer instant diagnoses to people at home, using voice and video, over internet technology such as Skype.

The doctors will be in a futuristic TV studio dominated by two large screens – one showing the participant, the other an interactive touch screen used to call up extra images and facts, Minority Report-style. Off-air, a comprehensive website – including live web chats with doctors following each show – will offer further information. And the aim of all this? To make us better patients, the programme-makers explain. "It's about showcasing a way medicine can be offered that gives participants the immediacy of seeing a doctor, while helping viewers become better informed. The consumer element is key," according to Channel 4 commissioning editor Kate Teckman.

"The biggest take-out we want people to experience is deeper understanding of how to be a better patient," adds Dan Jones, head of new media at Maverick Television, which has developed the show and also makes a host of others, including Bizarre ER for BBC3 and Children's Hospital for ITV1. "The kind of advice offered will be along the lines of: yes, you should go to your doctor, or not. And if you do, this is what you should know and this is what to ask." Diagnosis Live from the Clinic is, without doubt, a bold idea, but one likely to divide opinion among health experts as the rise and rise of "medi-tainment" – the new generation of prime-time health TV shows that mix education with entertainment – has already done. "My concern is shows like these are more about entertainment than education," Dr Margaret McCartney, a GP based in Glasgow, observes. "Where's the evidence that viewers end up better informed? I'm not sure claiming something is educational is much of a defence – it depends on what you are learning."

Jules Hillier, deputy chief executive of young people's sexual health charity Brook, also has some concerns. "It is important to use the media to break down barriers that prevent young people accessing health services – the fear they won't be listened to or that they will be laughed at. And it is undoubtedly a positive when we get calls from people who tell us it's because of shows like Embarrassing Bodies that they've got in touch," she says. "But we also get calls from people unnecessarily worried that they have an unusual or a rare complaint because of a programme. Is live TV the right place for diagnosis? I'm not convinced."

Then there's the question of how baring all on national TV will affect participants. With its mission to break taboos, Embarrassing Bodies has found a steady stream of people brave enough to expose sometimes jaw-dropping complaints – from prolapsed rectums to testicular abnormalities – to almost four million people each week. But at what personal cost? Dr McCartney asks. "What will happen to the people diagnosed in this way – what's the follow-up? Medicine is confidential so patients can be sure things are dealt with in a proper manner," she says. "Which is why I think it's best done off camera."

Channel 4 and Maverick insist they take such concerns extremely seriously. "There's a Faustian pact, which means to educate you've got to entertain, too," Maverick creative director Alex Fraser admits. "A sense of humour is a part of the medical professional's uniform. When, in the last series of Embarrassing Bodies, a team of Coventry fire-fighters stripped off to examine their testicles, it was all the more memorable for being informative and fun.

"Undoubtedly there is a degree of voyeurism," she continues. "But so long as that is underpinned by support and advice then I'm comfortable with that."

The public, meanwhile, chooses to participate for mainly altruistic reasons, the producers say. And all are offered what Maverick and Channel 4 describe as "a comprehensive package" of support, Fraser insists. "Sometimes, the journey we go on with a participant can last months."

Those wanting to take part in Diagnosis Live from the Clinic will apply via an online application form, which will then be viewed alongside any available digital camera stills by a "casting team", including doctors. Cases will be pre-selected to ensure conditions are interesting – though someone applying as the show begins at 8pm still stands a chance of getting on air by 9pm.

Once shortlisted, the casting team will call the patient to check their condition, what friends and family know about it and what, if any, advice that person has received from a GP. This is to ensure the person understands the implications of "going public".

After the broadcast, all participants will be called back with further advice.

To what extent this new breed of health TV can make us a nation of better patients remains to be seen. But even if it isn't your cup of tea, it might still be worth a look. Because a form of "home triage", conducted via digital technology, could be the future of healthcare. "The way health TV is going is being shaped by our changing healthcare system, and the opportunities new technologies can offer," Fraser claims.

"Many agree the one-to-one doctor's consultation system is not sustainable. Meanwhile, access to experts varies according to your postcode. Diagnosis Live from the Clinic is experimental. But it is also, in effect, a pilot for what might soon happen to the NHS."



Diagnosis Live from the Clinic begins on Channel 4 tomorrow at 8pm

The rise and rise of 'medi-tainment'



The launch of Diagnosis Live from the Clinic will be followed by Embarrassing Fat Bodies in July, then Embarrassing Teen Bodies, before Embarrassing Bodies returns this autumn. Since first airing on Channel 4 in 2007, EB has been sold to 70+ countries, including Afghanistan, Cuba and Papua New Guinea. The team behind it is now planning local versions for Germany, Australia and the US.

Embarrassing Bodies' success stories include eight-year-old Charlotte Wilson, whose mother contacted the show in 2008 about her daughter's verrucas – a common viral infection that most people's immune systems defeat. EB doctors referred Charlotte to Great Ormond Street Hospital, where medical tests revealed her immune system was virtually non-existent and she needed a bone-marrow transplant. The operation was successful and the UK's largest bone marrow charity, the Anthony Nolan Trust, reported a 4,000 per cent rise in inquiries in the days following the broadcast of an EB "special" in April 2010, when viewers were asked to sign up for the Bone Marrow Register

My Healthchecker is an online "self diagnosis tool" to support Diagnosis Live from the Clinic, developed by the show's makers in partnership with NHS Direct. It has attracted 80,000 registered users since launching eight weeks ago who, in turn, have completed 575,000 online self-diagnosis questionnaires. So far the most popular tests are to calculate Body Mass Index and body fat, and for Type 2 diabetes. The site has attracted 11.3 million users and 95 million page-views.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

    C++ Quant Developer

    £700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

    Java/Calypso Developer

    £700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

    SQL Developer

    £500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

    Day In a Page

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York