Media and Health

Media and Health

media and health

I have decided to take more notice of media coverage of health and watch ‘health’ programmes on TV. Previously I steered away from these because of the stereo typing and glossing over of how the NHS actually is. That is not to say it is bad – but so much is omitted or plain wrong that I wind myself up. Not what telly is for…

Embarrassing Bodies

A good example of this is the ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ series. Here a TV crew invite individuals who have long-standing health problems, to see one of their expert Doctors to help with the health problem. Some issues on the show seen have been:

  • A man with a suppurating wound in his armpit for months
  • A girl who smelt of fish
  • A large elderly woman with a football sized growth on her abdomen
  • Boy with breasts

If you have never seen the show, I should like to explain that those exposed on the show must have given consent to have the offending, embarrassing part of the body filmed in close detail. I feel for those appearing on the show who have let the TV camera’s produce 44″ screen shots of deformities and infections which then beam directly into the audience’s living rooms, mobile phones or PC’s.

Surely that must move embarrassment into a whole new dimension?

I believe that this type of reporting is replacing the freak shows of old, the bearded lady or elephant man.  Otherwise why would you watch – unless of course you have the same? Meanwhile the travelling circus of embarrassing bodies, that is the examination room (commonly called a caravan), travels to Brighton and asks youngsters to bring their problems to be sorted out.


Even I was shocked to see the main presenter standing in a huge demonstration vulva. This was constructed out of latex and used to explain how thrush infections might start. Was the giant vulva necessary? Or a cheap trick to captivate an audience – there I go again. But, I answer myself, if the show is really about helping people with health issues that have remained for years – why not talk to the GP’s or the Specialists who need to know this instead? Those who have ignored these sufferers and the proper course of action, because many have been under the care of the NHS for some time. That would be doing a real good job and I could accept the concept of the show.

If people are not getting the correct health advice then let’s not exploit them further by making a show of their embarrassment. Contact the GP with the solution so that others can benefit at the expense of the show makers.

Strangely, the health professionals on the show never alludes to this, although all of the cases broadcast tend to be ‘cured’ or significantly improved by the process of attending the embarrassing bodies medical team. They in turn set up private health appointments and treatments arranged and paid for by the TV company. Or perhaps I am missing a point here and the implication is that private health is better than the NHS?

Life in the NHS

Later I watched an old episodes of ‘A day in the Life of the NHS’, a joint project between the BBC and the Open University. I wanted to see how the criticisms, NHS restructuring, public health and recent health scandals such as the Francis Enquiry and latest news of pressures etc and other negative stories would be dealt with and hoped for some answers threaded in the documentary especially at it was an academic programme.

Firstly, I was impressed with the hard work and dedication portrayed by the film makers of the NHS staff, and the touching stories of care in the community and heart surgery. I didn’t see anything that was not positive to the NHS and wiped away an obstinate tear as the baby survived and the mother and father got back together – genuinely pleased for them.

Questions Arising – Later

After the initial relief, I was shocked at myself by not being more critical of some issues and being swept along by the BBC coverage of:

  •  The elderly lady having a heart attack being told that she was going to have her heart scanned – to me it was obvious she did not understand what the surgeon was saying but nodded and smiled when he did – reassured that all was OK
  • The couple who were reassured in poor English by the surgeon that the baby was OK after the heart operation to correct a congenital valve abnormality ; later the baby had to go for emergency surgery to stem a leak from the valve. Again the surgeon said that all was now OK and they continued to believe him again. In my experience working with heart bypass patients there is always a statistical risk of post operative complications
  • Numerous references to smoking and pictures of individuals smoking with the implication that they had somehow brought the ill-health on themselves and the NHS was picking up the pieces – maybe so, but surely this is editorial comment against patients lifestyles that needs to be addressed more openly?
  • The couple who had gone to Croatia for a holiday and he had a heart attack. The wife had been left in a dim corridor to find her own way home in the early hours of the morning. Meanwhile back in the UK, the film shows the elderly wife sitting in a hard plastic chair in a starkly lit NHS corridor. Didn’t the irony of the situation cross the editorial team’s minds?
  • Operations being cancelled and not enough beds. We see the frustration of the surgeon cancelling the operation. He is livid. But we get no view from the poor devastated patient. Now that would have been a balanced view – perhaps we could have learned from the patient other factors in the decision and the impact that the cancellation would have had on her health.
  • Medical devices could be any price because of their speciality or a baby being born in hospital costs £2000

More Balance Required

And I found myself looking at the editing of the film and could see no evidence of balanced view of any of the actual live issues regarding the NHS reform. Heart surgery and A & E care are excellent in the UK. Where are the geriatric and mental health positive stories? Who commissioned this fairy tale observation of life in the NHS with long lingering shots of birds and fields.

We know there are serious issues with overcrowding, long waiting lists, low staffing ratio’s and reports of abuse and lack of care. Will the filmmakers cover this? I will watch the other episodes and let you know. I won’t hold my breath.

The problem seems to lie in time wasters, smokers and those who do not comply with NHS recommendations. I should like to know how much the surgeons earned or how many hours a GP works. Editors presumably decide on content?

Author’s Opinion

I trained as a nurse in the NHS in 1976 and been in and around healthcare since. I truly believe that the NHS is a fantastic service. But political and economic arguments ruin the service that was once a leader.

Television audiences are changing too with more choices for discerning audiences and more insights. So when watching a health programme, please put yourself in the patient’s or relatives shoes (not the surgeon or nurse). Think of the last experience you had in a hospital – was it good for you and those around you? Is that how you would like to be treated? Would you recommend it to a friend (like you would for a kitchen extension?)

Does the end justify the means? Could we not do it a bit better even with our successes? Are our expectations that low and that we daren’t question how this happens?

Society should care more about these issues. The UK health care is not free. We pay for our health service with millions of pounds, we are the customers, we are the society. And one day the NHS may need to help you.

Society should not allow the media to do their own thing with health issues, just to grab an audience. Ignore real issues and paper over the cracks. Blame the victim and hold them up to display. And we, the audience, need to be more critical. Not judging the individuals, but the society that let these programmes be made. Or pehaps we should all switch off?

Do you have a view on this?

Original article May 2013, reviewed and update Jan 2019

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