Monday, 20 August 2012



I talked to Max Pemberton, author of The Doctor Will See You Now, about his life as a student journalist and his anger over the NHS reforms. From Ellipsis magazine issue 4.

[I have since been informed that Max appeared as a medical expert recently on a Channel 4 documentary called 'Sex Story: Fifty Shades of Grey', which, if you so wish, you can watch here.]

Max Pemberton seems to be an unstoppable force. He has degrees in Medicine and Anthropology. He writes regular columns for the Daily Telegraph and the Reader’s Digest. He has published three semi-autobiographical books. He is adapting his books for television and is writing a new thriller. He has even appeared on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

He is also a full time doctor in the NHS.

“I don’t have a television, and I don’t have children. If you don’t have a television, and you don’t have children, what else do you do in your evenings? You write books or you write articles. It’s quite straight forward!”

But there is more to Max than his self-deprecating humour suggests, and as I speak to him it becomes apparent that the secret to his success is an astonishing capacity for hard work.

“I think a lot of people look at me and think, “Oh you got your column when you were 23, that’s not fair,” but what they fail to appreciate is that I spent five years slogging away in journalism while I was a medical student. The number of tickets to the theatre that I’ve wasted, the people I’ve let down… You have to be really quite determined.”

In fact, Max’s career in journalism started not because of a passion for writing, but out of financial necessity. In his second year at UCL medical school and down to his last two hundred pounds, he applied for a job writing for an internet company that outsourced news content. Then when Max left university he realised that his life as a freelance journalist would not fit in with the busy schedule of a junior doctor so, unwilling to give up his aspirations of being a writer, he came up with a plan.

“I just wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph and said, ‘I’d like a column please. This is the idea I’ve got.’” After an interview with the editor the Telegraph agreed, giving Max a column in which to write about his first year as a junior doctor. It proved so popular with readers that he was kept on to provide opinions on current healthcare issues and has written a weekly article ever since. “I wanted to bring out a human interest angle in the big, political stories. There would be stories in the press about people on sickness benefits and it would all be very polarised; then I would see people on sickness benefits and think, ‘Well actually it’s a lot more complicated.’”

He has since written three books about his and his friends’ early years as doctors: Trust Me, I’m a Junior Doctor, Where Does It Hurt and The Doctor Will See You Now. The latter sees Max returning to hospital work after a year spent working with homeless people and drug addicts, and illustrates the incredible range of human experience doctors encounter every day. From Tony the school child who has taken an overdose because of homophobic bullying, to Mr Clements, who complains that a certain part of his anatomy has started to resemble an aubergine. One of the main issues of the book is the quality of care elderly patients receive, especially those suffering from dementia. Through stories of neglect and suffering Max challenges the way society views older people and exposes the major flaws in the way the NHS cares for them. 

“I appreciate how lucky I am to have this platform to talk about the things I feel passionate about. It’s really lovely and quite overwhelming, but it can also be absolutely petrifying. So sometimes when I sit down to write I have to pretend that I’m just writing for me, because otherwise I get overwhelmed with the anxiety that some people aren’t going to like it, or some people won’t agree.”

This would certainly have been the case for a series of articles he wrote recently denouncing Andrew Lansley’s NHS Reform Bill, claiming that the Health Service “will be spliced and diced into bite-sized portions to be thrown down the gullet of the corporate sector.” I found it refreshing to see someone defending the principle of care to all from cradle to grave, as well as explaining in simple terms the consequences of this complex piece of legislation. “I just thought it was absolutely disgusting and didn’t want to let them get away with it.

“I read the white paper, which is like the government’s explanation of what the legislation is going to do, and to me it bore absolutely no resemblance to the actual legislation I was reading. What annoyed me was not so much that it was essentially a roadmap for privatisation, although that would perturb and upset me, but that they were being disingenuous about what the actual legislation was. The white paper was all about patient choice and making things better for patients; in fact it is all about undoing caveats that had been put in to protect the NHS so that it can be sliced open for the private sector. It made me incandescent with rage.”

Fairness and honesty play a big part in Max’s writing, and he is committed to fighting for the causes he feels passionate about. “I suppose it comes from being in medicine: you realise that the world is inherently unfair. Some people get cancer and other people don’t, some people get knocked over by a bus and other people don’t. So society should be as fair as possible because underlying that is an inherent unfairness. When I see individuals behaving in a way that is unjust or unethical it gets me so angry because I think, well the world is so unfair anyway we don’t need people like you!”

When I ask if now is a difficult time for medicine graduates, he brings up another issue close to his heart. “I think the biggest and most significant thing that has happened to medicine students recently is the introduction of tuition fees, which I think is fucking disgraceful.

“It makes me worry. If you have gone through six years of medical school, and you’re paying £9000 a year, then who will want to become a community paediatrician? Or work with drug addicts in East End slums? People will want to go into the lucrative areas of private practice because they’ll think, ‘I bought the degree, I paid for it, what do I owe anybody?’”

Despite assurances that being a doctor is still his “main passion,” the balance must have shifted a little more towards writing as he became more successful, and I wonder if he would ever consider leaving the hospital to concentrate on journalism.

“I wouldn’t want to give up medicine,” he answers straight away, obviously not fazed by his many commitments. “I did have a bit of break a couple of months ago. I just couldn’t do everything so I took some time out of medicine and I actually really, really missed it. I love being a journalist and I love writing books but I also love working with people and seeing my patients, and I don’t think I really appreciated that until I gave it up.”