Laughter is the best medicine with Dr Phil Hammond
Jenny Lee speaks to doctor and comedian Dr Phil Hammond about bringing his live show Dr Phil's Health Revolution to the Out To Lunch Festival
DR PHIL Hammond is an NHS doctor, comedian, journalist, broadcaster and campaigner. He was a GP for 20 years and now works in a hospital treating young people with chronic fatigue syndrome.
Dr Phil has been Private Eye's medical correspondent for 24 years and started as a comedian in 1990 with Tony Gardner in Struck Off and Die at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
He brings his latest comedy show, Dr Phil’s Health Revolution, to Belfast's Out to Lunch Festival this month: it offers advice on how to live well, how to die well and how to negotiate the NHS while also helping it to survive.
What made you first venture into comedy back in 1990?
The first gig we did in Edinburgh was as angry junior doctors. We were working 120 hours a week – even longer than junior doctors today. I thought this was a good way of telling people the truth.
We told some very dark stories about death and dying and got picked up by Radio 4. They repeated the show and we got a record number of complaints from the Broadcasting Standards Council.
It wasn't a career plan at that point, it was more like therapy. Most of the doctors who go into comedy give up the day job, but I like doing both.
For those who haven't seen you on stage before what can they expect?
Access to a doctor. It's hard getting in to see a doctor these days, so I always bring my black bag, prescription pad and sick notes.
I tend to get problems from the audience, rather than heckles, and my changing room is open for swabs during the interval.
Most of the material has a medical theme but it's accessible to everyone. I aim for funny, therapeutic comedy with a message.
What inspired you to create the show?
Approaching the 70th anniversary of the NHS has made me reflect on what's happening to our health service, and what politicians have done to it. We need to join up the NHS rather than fragment it by putting every service out to tender.
There's also a lot of material about self-help in the new show, and a very personal account of mental illness and death in my family. Most of us spend our lives trying to balance pleasure and harm, and ignore the toxic rucksack of disappointment, harm and grief we carry around every day.
The Australian side of my family, half of which came from Donegal, before they emigrated to Australia, have a family motto which is SYOSO – 'Sort Your Own S*** Out'.
So, the first half of my show is about sorting your own s*** out and the second half of the show is about sorting each others' s*** out.
In your new book, Staying Alive – How to Get the Best from the NHS, you talk about the need for people to connect, learn, be active, give back, eat well, relax, sleep and have five portions of fun. Do you follow your own advice?
My grandmother used to say variety is the spice of life. I love my dogs, so dog walking is number one for me. There are loads of benefits such as being outdoors, admiring the beauty of nature, having the company of the dogs and meeting other people.
Friendship and community and putting roots down is what makes me happy. And I've nice pubs near me, which I pleasure myself in sensibly.
I'm also passionate about my work and trying to make the NHS better and helping those with chronic fatigue syndrome. You have to have passion and purpose, as well as pleasure, in life.
What is your biggest gripe with the NHS at the minute?
I think it's that we pretend we can have a world class system by not putting enough money in it. We put in 8 per cent of our GDP and countries we like to compare ourselves with like France, Holland and Germany put in 11 per cent.
Basically you get what you pay for. We could have a much fairer, happier society if we put more money into our health system.
If you were the health minister with a huge budget available, what areas would you prioritise money?
I say the bookends of life. So I would prioritise maternal health and early years and have great community and hospice care at the end of life.
Do you believe in assisted-suicide?
Because my dad took his own life, I don't like the term assisted-suicide, but I do support what I call assisted-dying. Some people have slow-growing cancers or motor neurone disease and get to a point where they don't have any quality of life. It would be kinder to let them go a bit quicker.
My step-dad had a slow growing pancreatic cancer and it took him eight weeks from when he stopped eating to when he eventually died. I wouldn't want that for myself. We have to have this discussion.
What are your most treasured possessions?
My normally-sized prostate and non-hurting teeth.
Is laughter the best medicine?
If you have syphilis I would recommend penicillin. Laughter is important as is your relationship with your doctor/nurse/carer. Humanity and compassion go together and if you can laugh and cry together that makes for a good relationship.
Sadly, nowadays you rarely see the same doctor, so to bring back laughter into the NHS you have to bring back continuity of care.
Have you any more plans for 2017?
I'm doing Countdown again this month and a fifth series of our NHS satire Polyoaks has been commissioned to be be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in June.
:: Dr Phil Hammond performs at Belfast's Black Box on Tuesday January 10 at 1pm and 8pm. For tickets visit CQAF.com or telephone 028 9024 6609.