Sunday 3 November 2013

REVIEW: Confessions of a GP, by Dr Benjamin Daniels (4*)

(The Friday Project, 2010)

This book, written under a pseudonym of course, didn't get off to the best of starts - not because of the writing or the narrative style, but because of the silly editorial slips.  You all know how much I LOVE those!  Within the first few pages I had noted a 'passed' instead of 'past', the use of 'sixteen' and '16' in the same sentence, and a 'their' and 'there' left side by side, as if the incorrect one should have been edited out but wasn't.  Later on, I even stumbled across an 'illicit' instead of 'elicit'.  Really glaring mistakes, in other words.  FORTUNATELY the actual content of the book was absorbing, interesting and funny enough to redeem it - hence the four stars.

One thing I really liked about Confessions is how 'everyday' this doctor's stories are.  He's not an A+E doctor (though obviously there are one or two stories from his training days) or a surgeon, but a garden-variety GP, a man on the front line and the gateway to most NHS services.  Rather than extreme cases, this book is more concerned with giving insight into the variety of presenting complaints made to a GP on a day-to-day basis and showing how much further a GP's role goes than we might realise.  I reckon I'll be less inclined to grumble next time my doctor's running late, for example, because it's clear that not every problem can be tackled in ten minutes, and often the patients that cause appointments to run late are the most vulnerable and important of the day.

Of course, the most delightful moments in the book often stem from Daniels' stories of memorable patients, from the hilarious (an elderly lady's rectal exam had me in fits of laughter) to the tear-jerking (like when the hospital doctors conspired to reunite a lady who had been paralysed by a stroke with her beloved pet cat on her birthday, despite the strict ward rules).  What I also really liked about this book was the fact that because it's written under a pseudonym, the doctor behind it is able to be brutally honest about various political and social issues he has come up against over the years.  For example, he unleashes his contempt over a posh London yuppie who came in with a son suffering from a severe bout of measles.  The boy had never been vaccinated against any of the horrific diseases that can affect children, because his mother was convinced that she could "boost his immune system naturally" with a whole food diet.  As a reader, I was horrified at her na├»vety - and Daniels was understandably even more so:
"I believe the one great achievement of modern medicine is the widespread vaccination of children.  Vaccines are cheap, safe and have saved millions of lives both here and all over the world...  There it was: measles...  As a doctor who had only practised medicine in the twenty-first century, I should never have seen this disease...  He can eat all the organic dates and wholemeal rice in the world, it won't give him immunity to measles, mumps, rubella, diptheria, tetanus, meningitis C, whooping cough, haemophilus influenza and tuberculosis...  Not all children can have vaccines.  They can be harmful to children who have diseases of their immune system such as HIV or those having chemotherapy for cancer.  Previously, these children were protected because healthy children were all vaccinated and so a disease outbreak was prevented... Vaccinating isn't just about protecting your own child."
It is stories - and explanations - like this slotted alongside the funny anecdotes, bizarre patients and heartwarming moments that make the book so thought-provoking and elevate it beyond 'just another doctor memoir.'  Daniels shares his thoughts on everything from a doctor's role in society, doctor-patient relationships, the cost of NHS treatment, privatisation and the differences between hospital and general practice work, to time wasters, sick note scroungers, drug addicts, government meddling, NHS targets and the way drug reps operate.  Not only that, but he manages to do it in a way that is simultaneously funny and telling, pithy and insightful.  In the end, despite those dreadful editorial mistakes, I really enjoyed this book, and might even keep hold of it to reread sometime.  It made me think about certain elements of healthcare in a different way, and made me laugh out loud more than a few times... what more could I ask for?
Notable Quotables:
  • "One gripe I have with alternative practitioners is that they are ultimately private.  Somebody is making money out of your illness and having only ever worked for a free at point of access health service, I find that an uncomfortable concept."
  • "Patients often take it upon themselves to bring in various samples of their body fluids for my perusal.  I would like to emphasise that this is normally not appreciated.  A pot of urine is generally not too bothersome.  Often in a jam jar, I hold it to the light, stroke my chin and let out a 'hmmm'.  I like doing this as it makes me feel like an old-fashioned doctor from the nineteenth century."
  • "I listen to Radio 4, grow tomatoes and lately have found myself remarking on how comfortable and practical a combination of socks and sandals is.  Until recently, I thought the Arctic Monkeys were a result of climate change.  Your children will quite rightly view me as a geek and will under no circumstances take any lifestyle advice from me."

Source: I bought this book in a mammoth box of books from Amazon, way back in May 2011.  It's one of the handful from that pile that I've now finally read!