The street doctor

A Q&A with GP and media doctor Jonty Heaversedge.

  • Date: 22 March 2012

DIAGNOSING patients in the middle of the street is not the kind of practice most GPs are used to. But Dr Jonty Heaversedge is not like most GPs. The 40-year-old Londoner has become a familiar face in recent years thanks largely to the BBC1 programme Street Doctor where he was one of four GPs travelling the UK consulting with people ‘on the street’. He has also worked on BBC children’s anti-smoking programme The Smokehouse and presented BBC1 show Lifegivers, highlighting organ donation. He regularly features on TV news and radio programmes and has co-authored the book, The Mindful Manifesto, which highlights the health benefits of meditation.

Jonty qualified from the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine and went on to earn a second degree in psychology and a masters in mental health from the University of London. He currently works as a GP partner at an inner city practice in east London.


How did you get involved in ‘media medicine’?

By chance, really. Friends encouraged me to screen test for Street Doctor and I ended up doing three series. Since then I have been involved in a number of other shows raising awareness of various health issues. Media medicine was never an ambition of mine at medical school but I really enjoy the challenges it brings and, perhaps most importantly, it is fun.

How does your work as a GP compare with your media work?

The practice and my patients are at the heart of everything I do. They keep my feet on the ground and offer me encouragement, support and some honest criticism. My day job gives me the credibility and confidence to appear on TV and, at one level, they both involve the same thing – talking to people. I put as much effort into helping one patient in my consulting room understand their condition as I do when I am talking to millions of people on the TV.

Which part of your career is most rewarding?

I think each aspect of my career brings its own rewards and both enhance my medical practice in different ways. My practice offers security and stability as well as the rewards of real relationships with my patients and their families. The media work I do challenges me to be more creative and to step out of the safety of my consulting room. This brings with it great rewards but also significant risk – not everyone is going to like me or agree with me and, as well as many compliments, I have had to deal with criticism from both other doctors and the public.

What inspired you to write your book, The Mindful Manifesto?

I attended a Buddhist meditation centre for a number of years and found the teachings and practices really helpful. Fundamentally, meditation allowed me to develop a much gentler, more compassionate relationship with my mind and body and it gave me the confidence and courage to take on new challenges. I started talking to a journalist friend from the centre, Ed Halliwell, about meditation (or mindfulness) and together we wrote The Mindful Manifesto where we attempt to raise awareness of its potential benefits to individuals and wider society. I feel truly proud to have contributed to the book – it has had a great reception and we are very excited because it is coming out in the States this year.

Programmes like Street Doctor and Embarrassing Bodies have sparked an increase in doctors treating patients on TV. What is the value of these types of shows?

This is a tricky question. I have always been quite clear in the TV work I have done that it should never cause additional discomfort or embarrassment, and that it should be informative and attempt to engage with patients who might not otherwise go to their GP. The BBC were equally rigorous in ensuring these principles were met and we had very few complaints about Street Doctor.

As a doctor you have the professional responsibility to ensure that every patient is treated with dignity and respect and I have turned down a number of programmes where I have not felt this is the case. However, we also have to try to influence the wider population to take better care of their health. This will at times involve working with other professions (such as the media) who have experience in engaging the public – and yes, at the end of the day this will require medical programmes to be ‘entertaining’. In my view, however, this should never ever be at the expense of the patient.

What is your most memorable Street Doctor encounter?

There were so many but undoubtedly the most memorable was with Jim. I met him in Oxford at a market and like so many middle aged men he had been putting off going to see a doctor. He had been losing weight and it was apparent on examination that he was anaemic. I arranged blood tests that confirmed this and then organised a scan that identified a retroperitoneal mass that was subsequently confirmed to be a lymphoma. He was an amazing man and, although he has now sadly died, I hope that by picking up his cancer when we did he had a longer life and that his generosity in allowing us to share his diagnosis may have encouraged others to seek help sooner.

Would you ever give up your GP work to pursue a media career full time?

Absolutely not. My media work is underpinned by my work in the practice and without this I think I would lose all credibility as a TV doctor. I am also very well aware, from a purely selfish perspective, that the media is a pretty fickle industry and very few presenters have long careers. I am happy just to enjoy what I am doing right now and I feel it balances well with my work in the practice.

What are the most important lessons young doctors should learn?

How to look after themselves and how to care for their patients with compassion and kindness.

Describe a typical working week.

I spend four days a week in the practice although I have recently become a GP Commissioning Lead for an area in south east London so I spend an increasing amount of time dashing between meetings. I still do a fair amount of media work and am currently developing a couple of TV ideas. With all of the changes we are going through in the health service at the moment I am regularly contacted for comment by a range of news and current affairs programmes but I tend to say no to requests for comment that are political and stick to items relating to improving patient care. I continue to contribute to shows like This Morning on a regular basis which I really enjoy.

How do you like to spend your free time?

What free time?! My life is pretty busy and right now I feel as though I am spread too thinly and this is taking its toll. I have just turned 40 and this has made me think about my life and the need to have more time to relax and enjoy myself. I try to spend more time at home with my partner or seeing friends and I also try to keep fit.

What projects do you have coming up?

Like most GPs I am quite preoccupied with the challenges we face in the NHS. The next few years are going to require some difficult decisions to be made both in my practice and in the local health economy. I have been studying a Masters in Healthcare Commissioning to try and get my head around what the government’s proposed changes will actually mean for GPs and to ensure that locally we are prepared for whatever challenges these bring. This is taking up a lot of my energy but I also have a couple of exciting TV projects that I hope will work out.


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