Celebrity Interviews

Dr Christian Jessen: It always shocks me that I still get asked questions such as “Can you get HIV from kissing?”, or “Is it true that if you have sex standing up you won’t get pregnant?”

Dr Christian Jessen is the presenter of ‘Embarrassing Illnesses’, ‘Supersize Vs Superskinny’ (check out the book of this published 2008), ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ and ‘The Ugly Face of Beauty’. He graduated in 2000 from University College London, having trained in general medicine, infectious disease, travel medicine and sexual health/HIV. Throughout his career, Dr Jessen has lived in Kenya and Uganda where he taught in schools and also researched malaria and HIV interactions in children.

He now works at Doctorcall, on the world famous Harley Street, as well as being the medical advisor and columnist for Closer magazine and the author of a weekly health column for the Evening Standard and various other magazines and papers. Being involved with a number of public campaigns and working closely with several health charities, Dr Jessen’s main aim is to help raise medical awareness and simplify, demystify, de-stigmatise and explain the sometimes complicated and inaccessible world of medicine to the public.

Photography credit: Photography (c) 2006 Channel 4

Photography credit: Photography (c) 2006 Channel 4

Hi Dr J! Thank you for agreeing to chat to World of Books today. We love watching you whizzing about the country on TV diagnosing the people of Britain, and we know our customers appreciate your work and advice too. 

Q: Ok, so we’ll start with an easy one: if you could have gone into any other profession, what would it be?

– I would be a director, not a boring old company director, but a director of theatre and opera is what I would have loved to do, and what I did want to do as a child before doing medicine.

Q: Wow, we didn’t expect that! So what made you choose medicine then?

– Numerous reasons, but really I think I was persuaded that a career in theatre was not the easiest route necessarily, or a particularly stable career to try and pursue. So because I was academic and I could pass exams and I was good at sciences, I thought perhaps I ought to look at something more in that field. Then of course there was that age-old lie that pops in that says “You can always go back to the theatre afterwards”, which I’m sure a lot of kids are told and never do. I’d still happily direct actually.

Q: Does that mean you sometimes help direct the shows that you’re in as well?

– Well I suppose in a way, yes, although we have a director so I’m not going to take away any of their glory, but at the end of the day we are the experts, so what we say should happen or shouldn’t does really need to be stuck to. In other words, if I think a case is very inappropriate for TV or we need to examine some part of it but not the other then obviously it’s me that makes that decision. I think probably I do have a more ‘hands-on’ role than perhaps many presenters do simply for that reason. In theory I know what I’m talking about!

Q: The story of Charlotte Wilson who appeared on Embarrassing Bodies in 2008 is a powerful example of what such programmes are able to raise awareness of. Charlotte, who was seven at the time, was suffering from multiple painful verrucas. Having been placated by other medical professionals that the matter would subside naturally given time, Charlotte’s mother, Sophia Wilson, decided to take a chance and took Charlotte to see the doctors on Embarrassing Bodies. Within days of being examined by Dr Jessen, Charlotte had undergone a blood test that showed she was lacking in vital white bloodcells that usually build up a person’s immune system. Through further investigation, it was revealed that Charlotte had a rare immunodeficiency, and needed to undergo a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible. Thankfully, Charlotte’s sister Isabelle was a match and Charlotte received the treatment she needed, undergoing painful chemotherapy, but coming out the other side ok.

When you think back on stories like Charlotte’s, how do you feel?

– It makes me feel enormously proud when I think back on it actually, because I thought it was a brilliant show, and I think if people knew some of the background behind the programme they would understand why I’m proud. Essentially Channel 4 weren’t initially convinced it was worth investing to make a whole hour’s show out of one person’s story, which would have to be spectacular to be worth the investment and capture an audience’s attention for the time required. So we went ahead and we made it anyway without any money and the director, Paul Kittel, was really self-shooting, for example he often held the cameras. He was brilliant actually, and he put in a lot of his own time without any pay until all the channels starting seeing the footage of the finished work/parts of the final cut, and said, “Yes, actually this is really good”, and gave us the money to cover it. So initially it was a real labour of love on Paul’s part and on our part, and actually on the family. The most extraordinary thing about that story was not just the case itself, but the fact that although the family were going through a terribly difficult time, they gave us full and complete access to everything and never once said, “Look, will you just put that camera down and go away?” as you’d expect them to quite understandibly. They never once did that, instead they said, “No, you diagnosed this in our daughter, you’ve literally saved her life. The least we can do is let you follow up the story”, which I thought was truly amazing.

Their bond as a family was just beautiful. I recorded the voice-over for it, and often when you record a voice-over it’s the first time you’ve seen a lot of the footage because you’re not there for some of the filming. I remember just crying and having to stop because it was so moving, and I kept thinking, “Wow this is a really special bit of TV”.  Particularly one of the most emotional bits for me was when Charlotte comes home after being in isolation for so long. There’s no talk, she just hugs her family, her little sister and her brother, and it’s very, very moving, and totally real.

Q: Do you feel that this episode has vindicated the following programmes you have worked on?

–  It’s done a lot of things. Firstly, on the day and the day after the episode aired, the Anthony Nolan Trust that organise the bone-marrow register, got more people come forward as donors than ever before, and that was obviously a prime goal. The point of these shows is not simply to titillate, it’s also to raise awareness and it certainly did that- they were flooded with applications!

Q: Now, it seems fair to say that most of the programmes you appear in are somewhat up-close-and-personal with your patients. However, despite this, and despite the potential of appearing on national television, patients seem more willing to share their issues with you than their own GP. How important do you think it is for society to break down embarrassment and shyness when it comes to personal health?

– It’s hugely important. That unwillingness and hesitation to go to the doctor, any delay, can mean the difference between receiving successful treatment or not, it may even lead to death. When it comes to cancers and similar illnesses, the longer you leave them, the harder they are to treat.

I think the idea that people are willing to ‘bare all’ on TV but not with their GP is a bit of a myth. I don’t think they are more willing, I think it’s a case of they’ve tried and not got anywhere.  Sometimes a patient comes to us and explains they’ve been to their GP already and been turned away or shrugged off. We do tend to edit those parts out because I don’t want to be a vehicle for criticising other doctors, it’s not what the show is about. So what you see when you watch the programmes may suggest they’ve not tried anything before, but often that’s not the case. They may have even tried another treatment but it’s not really worked and they haven’t gone back. Basically the magic of television portrays us in the public eye as better doctors than anyone else, which is absolute nonsense, but it means people may be more trusting of us, so all we can do is try our hardest to help the patients we do see.

Then of course some people come to us to raise awareness of their condition. They may have dealt with an illness for years, and finally thought, “Right, enough is enough. I’m going to get sorted, but also let other people know about this as well”.  These people believe very strongly in what they’re doing, and tell us that.

So I suppose you could say it’s a mixture of reasons as to why people come onto the shows.

Q: In Embarrassing Teenage Bodies, you work hard to break down common misconceptions that British teenagers seem to hold. Do you often feel alarmed at some of the wrong ideas and misunderstandings you have come across?

– We have a huge following of young people, and it is these people who I want to be targeting as a doctor. They’re interesting because they’re actually a group of people you very rarely come across, because they very rarely get ill, so they don’t willingly come into normal clinics.

In terms of feeling alarmed, I’d say “Yes” and “No”. It’s bizarre, in many respects young people are more mature than I was at a similar age. Nowadays these kids are so much more established and self-confident, so much older than I remember being. But then in the other respect, they’re just utterly useless when it comes to things like personal health issues. You would have thought that it’d all come together, that maturity and then that knowledge, but it doesn’t. The only way they’re going to pick that sort of thing up is being taught it, but I think we’re still not achieving this very well. There’s a very fine line when it comes to covering sexual health issues. When I cover them I attempt to entertain at the same time and present the subject with a smile, because we can all appreciate it is a slightly embarrassing topic. I try to acknowledge that, but at the same time impart the seriousness of sexual health conditions, but it can be quite tricky at times.

Some schools, due to whatever reason, don’t hold sexual health classes or talks because they don’t want to encourage it, which I believe is one of the most foolish things you can do. By making out that sexual feelings are bad, it renders it almost a ‘back-street’ thing which becomes all these young people know, and that’s when the disasters happen.

It always shocks me that I still get asked questions such as “Can you get HIV from kissing?”, or “Is it true that if you have sex standing up you won’t get pregnant?”

Q: Some of the medical advice given by the programmes you work on has been criticised, as well as some of the operations that they have filmed. What would you say to the critics about their concerns?

– Always with these programmes, certain papers permanently give them snooty reviews, saying “It’s disgusting, and voyeuristic, and we don’t want to see this”, but I wouldn’t do it if I thought it was that, as a Doctor ethically I couldn’t justify it. I really do believe these programmes do an awful lot for people by reassuring and teaching them. But having said that, you do have to be realistic, TV is a form of entertainment and sometimes it’s better to entertain in order to be able to teach. I think people that don’t realise that just aren’t getting it. A lot of what I do is funny and jokey, but at the same time as you watch it hopefully you’ll be educated about things every step of the way. At the end of the day as a GP you may come across over 200,000 patients in your lifetime, but we actually speak to 3 or 4 million across the country because of the shows, which is extraordinary; it’s a very powerful form of education.

To the critics I would say just ask the number of people this work has helped. Just go away and think about what these programmes are really trying to do. You may not like watching these things because you’re squeamish at 8 o’clock in the evening, fine, but there are an awful lot of people who have benefitted. I’d show them the number of letters we get in, some of which are incredibly serious. One particularly moving example I can think of off the top of my head is when a mother wrote in and began the letter with, “Thank you for saving my son’s life”. Basically I’d done a programme that featured a rugby team that focused on them regularly checking for signs of testicular cancer, and her 13-year-old son had gone away and done it. He noticed something was wrong and immediately told his mother. They went to the doctors the next day and it turned out that he did have cancer. Thankfully he’s now been cured and is fine, but the only reason he went away and checked was because he’d watched how to do it on the show. Stories like that for me justifies everything that we do.

Q: When you find the time, what do you do to relax?

– I’m a big fitness fanatic. I try and go to the gym everyday, but usually end up going more like 4 or 5 times a week. That’s my down-time, my ‘me’ time.

I also read a lot. I collect books by the thousands, in fact I’m always in trouble for buying new books. At home there are piles of books on the floor, and bookcases completely full. As an academic when you’re reading medicine you read an awful lot so it becomes a part of your life anyway, and as an only child growing up that’s just what I did.

Q: That’s lovely to hear (World of Books always welcomes a fellow book-worm!) So what book is currently on your night-stand?

– Well I always have several on the go. I’m currently reading The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century, Caligula: Divine Carnage: Atrocities of the Roman Emperors,  and a book about the Emperess Dowager Cixi. So quite a lot of historical books, not really any medical books because it’s so much a part of what I do all day every day, that I try to do something different in the evenings. I read a lot of easy reading books as well, they’re best when they’re fast-paced and full of adventure. I buy a lot of them from charity shops round the corner from where I work, read them in a couple of days then take them to my local library.

I have a huge number of books that are hardbacks, and I collect quite a lot of rare books as well such as old volumes on conjuring and magic. I find that they’re beautiful books and gorgeously illustrated.

Q: You have written several books echoing the TV programmes, including Can I just Ask? (2010) and Supersize Vs Superskinny (2008). How much of the books do you personally write? How long does it take? And how much research do you have to carry out?

It varies depending on what the brief is. There are more books in the pipeline some of which I will write, and others that will be ghost-written. It really just depends on my experience. Can I Just Ask? was 100% written by me. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but answering those sort of questions was what I’d been doing for the last few years, so they were already there, I just had to get them down on paper and with the right voice that would be interesting enough to capture a reader’s attention. It requires a huge amount of discipline and I really admire writers, particularly if they write from home, for me there’s a million and one other distractions.

Q: So, lastly, our standard World of Books question- World of Books is dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. Any book we can’t sell, we recycle; last year alone we saved 12,500 metric tonnes of waste from going to landfill sites. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?

I absolutely do. There are books that I think are worthy of keeping and books that I think are thoroughly entertaining but I wouldn’t probably read again, and those are the books I pass on so other people can enjoy them. Bookshelves soon fill up so it’s good to pass them on for other people to read.

Wondering whether to have a read of some of Dr Jessen’s books? Why not visit our site and see what you can find?


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  • Reply jodi October 28, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Check your spelling of embarrassing throughout this interview.

    • Reply worldofbooksltd October 28, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      You are absolutely right Jodi! I’ve gone through and updated the post – if you find any others let me know.

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