Richard Armitage is a GP and Public Health Specialty Registrar, and Honorary Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham’s Academic Unit of Population and Lifespan Sciences. He is on twitter: @drricharmitage
The recent decision of Matt Hancock – the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and the current Member of Parliament for West Suffolk – to appear on reality TV show I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! was met with strong disapproval from both Conservative Party whips and his local constituents.1 However, he intends to use his time in the Australian jungle to raise awareness of the challenges of living with dyslexia, which he was diagnosed with himself while studying at Oxford, claiming that politicians must “go where the people are,” and that the reality TV show, which attracted 10.9 million viewers in 2022,2 is a “powerful tool” for reaching young people.3 While no GPs or other celebrity doctors have featured on the cast of any previous I’m a Celeb series, it seems far from impossible for such an event to transpire. There is no shortage of doctors who have achieved celebrity status (Dr Zoe Williams, Dr Rangan Chatterjee, and Dr Sarah Jarvis are all practicing GPs with substantial media fame and sizable public engagements), and at least one doctor to date has appeared on reality TV shows (A&E doctor Alex George was in the cast of the 2019 Love Island series, which I can absolutely guarantee I did not watch). This begs the question that, if MPs are seemingly able to become stars of reality TV (albeit with substantial disapproval from a variety of sources), should it be considered acceptable for GPs and other doctors to do the same? Here I’ll explore the possible effects on the patients they serve, the doctor-patient relationship, and the wider profession in which the doctors practice.
Would it affect patients?
A key criticism of Hancock’s I’m a Celeb decision was that it would remove him from the constituents he was elected to serve. As a sitting MP, eating bugs in the Australian jungle for potentially a three-week period would prevent him from adequately dealing with the crucial matters of his seat. A GP in such a position might be predisposed to ask the ethical question, ‘Will harm come to my patients if I’m not in surgery to treat them?’ The answer to this question is seemingly complicated and may depend on the doctor’s employment status – do patients suffer when a salaried doctor calls in sick, or takes a long period of time off as paid or unpaid leave? Or do they suffer more when a locum GP doesn’t book a shift in the first place when they otherwise could have done so and seen a long list of patients? How much harm is done to the patient if continuity of care is not established but an alternative GP tends to them instead and provides safe and effective care akin to that of this absent doctor? Ultimately, how a period of proposed annual leave is intended to be spent is not considered in the decision to grant it or not, and the GP would be unavailable to their patients during that time regardless of whether he spends it relaxing in the swimming pool or eating insects in the jungle.
Due to his inability to discharge the duties inherent to his role, calls have been made for Hancock to relinquish his £84,144 annual MP’s salary while he is away from his constituency.3 Similarly, any practicing doctor – whose wages also derive from a body of tax payers – making a similar reality TV appearance should do so without payment from their usual employer once any annual leave entitlements have been thoroughly exhausted (they would separately receive payment as a fee from the TV show). With this arrangement in place, however, there is no immediate reason why they should not make the TV appearance.
Would it affect the doctor-patient relationship?
Many West Suffolk constituents are unimpressed by Hancock’s decision and feel it will damage their relationship with the MP that they elected4 and he has since been suspended from his position as a result of the move.1 But would a doctor’s appearance on a reality TV show strengthen or weaken the relationship between that doctor and his patients? This can easily be imagined to go in either direction: on the one hand, seeing your doctor on a reality TV show could render them more relatable and thus easier to get along with. By ‘spending time with’ that doctor across a string of successive episodes, the patient learns more about their personality and grows to see them as human. This would serve to lower the hierarchy that may be preventing a workable relationship and thus allow the patient to trust them more and be more accepting of their advice. On the other hand, this levelling can be subject to an overreach that harms the therapeutic relationship. Doctors must be regarded as serious professionals for patients to have confidence in their ability to care. Seeing their doctor visibly terrified of various creepy-crawlies and divulging elements of their personal life including their weaknesses and fears may violate the foundation of the relationship in which the doctor is unquestioningly regarded as a strong and competent expert.
Would it affect the wider profession?
A quick search of the literature reveals no published studies that explore opinions of healthcare professionals on their celebrity colleagues’ media ‘side gigs.’ But it is easy to imagine a landscape of attitudes towards reality TV show doctors, ranging from actively in favour of and enthusiastically encouraging them, through to strongly in opposition to and considering them not serious. But whether a doctor featuring on a reality TV show would affect the wider profession’s reputation is likely to depend upon the specific details of the situation. Would a doctor broadcasted to millions as leading an unhealthy lifestyle – drinking to excess and smoking regularly, or perhaps being overtly sexually promiscuous – cast a shadow onto the profession large enough to bring it into disrepute? This is highly unlikely and readily correctable by a handful of disapproving statements from the relevant professional bodies. But it does raise the age-old question about the effectiveness of doctors’ advice that is cloaked in a “do what I say, not what I do” caveat, as well as doctors’ willingness to initiate lifestyle interventions that they themselves are in fact eligible for.5
It may even be the case that such appearances serve to enhance the profession’s reputation. In a similar manner to the expressed intent of Hancock to raise the public’s awareness of the challenges of dyslexia, Dr Alex George of Love Island fame subsequently used his substantial public prominence to draw attention to mental health stigma in young children and adolescents. He was consequently named the UK Government’s youth ambassador for mental health in 2021, and has worked with charities such as Mind, YoungMinds and the Anna Freud Centre.6 If the effects of his reality TV appearance are considered over a longer period, it is difficult to interpret his time on screen as detrimental to the profession’s image.
In summary, it seems that, although it might be regarded distasteful by a variety of individuals, it might be considered acceptable for doctors to appear on reality TV shows. While it would undeniably have impacts on their patients and professional relationships, these harms could be sufficiently minimised so that the benefits substantially outweigh them. Rather than keeping them out of there, perhaps GPs and other doctors should be queuing up to enter the jungle.
- BBC News. Matt Hancock suspended as Tory MP for joining I’m a Celeb cast. BBC News 02 November 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-63471923 [accessed 03 November 2022]
- L Molina-Whyte. I’m A Celebrity 2021 scores lowest launch show ratings in more than 10 years. RadioTimes.com 22 November 2021. https://www.radiotimes.com/tv/entertainment/reality-tv/im-a-celebrity-2021-ratings-newsupdate/ [accessed 03 November 2022]
- BBC News. Matt Hancock defends joining I’m A Celebrity cast. BBC News 02 November 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-63481685 [accessed 03 November 2022]
- BBC News. I’m A Celebrity: Matt Hancock’s Suffolk constituents air their views. BBC News 02 November 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-63472625[accessed 03 November 2022]
- SN Bleich, WL Bennett, KA Gudzune, et al. Impact of Physician BMI on Obesity Care and Beliefs. Obesity 10 September 2012, 20: 999-1005. DOI: 10.1038/oby.2011.402
- Mental Health Speakers Agency. Dr Alex George. https://mentalhealthspeakers.co.uk/speaker/dr-alex-george[accessed 03 November 2022]