'The Good Doctor Guide' provoked a storm of controversy... Wouldn't 'The Crap Doctor Guide' be more useful?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A friend was filling in time at a conference in Boston by watching a televised baseball game. In the first of many advert breaks, a menopausal woman cycled across the screen and said: "I had my laproscopic colposuspension (bladder lifting) done by Mr Rick Winkerson MD and it's changed my life. Now I can cycle for miles without any leakage and my sex life is better than ever. I thoroughly recommend Mr Winkerson and his team, not just for the excellence of the surgery, but for their care and concern. For stress incontinence and prolapse, try the Winkerson Clinic. Phone now for a free brochure."

You may laugh, but so is Mr Winkerson - all the way to the bank. Since his advert was first screened, his workload and income have tripled. And why not? Mr Winkerson is apparently a very accomplished surgeon and his results are second to none. But what's the use if the punters don't know about his work?

Americans can be as puritanical as the British over moral issues, but when it comes to advertising their services, they're simply the best. I've never understood why British doctors shouldn't be allowed to flaunt themselves, especially now the private hospitals they work in seem to have taken over the airwaves. "The voice you are about to hear is Elisabeth. She is not an actress, but a patient who had her bladder lifted at the Priory Hospital..."

Never mind scientific trials, all you need is a single happy anecdote, preferably from someone who could be mistaken for the Queen Mother on a bicycle.

In the pre-reform era, most British doctors were anti-advertising. Medicine was a vocation and you didn't need financial inducements or a public profile to do a good job. When a GP in the Black Country organised a lantern march along the streets outside his surgery "to celebrate the health of the community", he received angry protests from rival GPs who accused him of trying to poach their patients. He wasn't, but you can understand the suspicion.

In the new, competitive NHS, patient-poaching is a religion and you need to advertise to do it. Indeed, it's ludicrous to even contemplate a market system without advertising. If Jack Dee's widgets can increase the sales of John Smith's bitter by more than 50 per cent, why not let him do the same for Prof Smith's hernias?

And what else are hospital league tables if not a crude advertisement? They may be grossly inaccurate, they may include figures for surgeons who died 10 years ago, but the principle has been widely supported by the public. You want to know what's going on. Every doctor working in a hospital knows who they'd send their mother to and who they wouldn't send their dog to, so why not you? If doctors don't advertise themselves, others will do it for them. The Good Doctor Guide provoked a storm of controversy but you've got a right to at least try to choose. OK, if you can't afford to go private, you may not get the consultant of your dreams but there's no harm in asking.

And wouldn't "The Crap Doctor Guide" be even more useful? "Professor Stinky Wilkins has been experimenting with trans-urethral oesophagectomies for the past five years and has killed everything in sight."

Some doctors have freely embraced the idea of advertising. A new consultant in my area sent round his CV to all local GPs and is cleaning up on the private business. GPs are churning out leaflets and sticking them through letter boxes on new housing estates.

One fundholding practice has invested in a minibus to ferry patients to and from the surgery (and the partners' children around Europe in the holidays). When not in casual use, it proudly displays the name of the practice on both sides.

As for individual doctors, until recently we had to stick to a single brass name-plate with letters no more than two inches tall to attract the public gaze. In 1990, the General Medical Council generously allowed us to provide factual information about our qualifications and services, but not opinion.

So I can tell you that I'm a member of Equity and the Royal College of General Practitioners, that I have a Diploma in Geriatric Medicine, a Writers' Guild Award for Best Radio Comedy Script (1994)*, two complaints from the Broadcasting Standards Council* (upheld) and a Professor Owen Ward Award for Teacher of the Year at Birmingham University Medical School (1995). I'm also unassumingly modest (fact) and, according to the Independent's comedy critic, "ginger and rude". But I can't tell you if I'm a good doctor.

* Shared with my mate Dr Tony.

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