Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Meet the shock-proof docs

Here we go: A patient strips down for her <i>Embarrassing Bodies Down Under</i> debut.

Here we go: A patient strips down for her Embarrassing Bodies Down Under debut.

The title of British reality medico show, Embarrassing Bodies makes its own celebrity doctors squirm.

And yes, when it came to naming the Australian spin-off, Dr Christian Jessen, one of three doctors who has examined the unsightly nether regions of British volunteers over seven seasons, was hoping for something a little less salaciously obvious than the resulting Embarrassing Bodies Down Under.

But despite that it has, in his opinion, transcended its distasteful moniker, covering issues not so much embarrassing as potentially life-threatening … in short he believes the educational benefits of the program justify the gross-out factor.

Dr Christian Jessen.

Dr Christian Jessen. Photo: Ben Symons

''The title is something we regret, because we're stuck with this idea of the embarrassing bodies,'' says Jessen, from London, home after two weeks filming in Sydney and on the Gold Coast. ''We cover all diseases and all conditions and the complaints we get are, 'How can you call cancer embarrassing?'. [The title] is just the name of the show, but when we were starting off, that was the premise. It had to be embarrassing and awkward stuff.''


Turning what can be the dull goings-on of the general practitioner's surgery into light entertainment has always been the objective, says Jessen, who still works two days a week at a London medical centre.

''I think you have to push the boat. Medicine, traditionally, has never been very good at being entertaining,'' he says.

''We see ourselves as a serious profession and put ourselves on a pedestal. I think the public feels in awe of doctors and sometimes we haven't been that approachable.

''This show, I hope, breaks that down and shows us as more normal people and that, yes, occasionally some things are funny and some things are OK to giggle at. We'll entertain you for an hour. You'll giggle at some willies, you'll look at some boobs, your jaw will drop at some of the serious medical issues that people develop, but at the end of the hour, you will have learnt something really useful about your health and your family's health and I think that's the best sort of telly.

''It is a fine line. You don't laugh at patients and you don't laugh at diseases, but you can laugh at our body parts and things that people worry about and that's where the balance is.''

The local version covers the expected gamut of warts and pustules in awkward spots, and instructional public stunts by Jessen, including a demonstration in Sydney of correct self-breast examination techniques while wearing a custom-made ''breast vest''; and a segment in which he employs meter maids as ''teaching aids''.

Dr Brad McKay, a practising Melbourne GP and keen amateur improvisational actor, whose appearances as a medical consultant on Channel Ten's The Project won him a gig on Embarrassing Bodies Down Under, was as reticent as Jessen about the local title, which he fears may appeal more to the British market than Australian audiences.

''I hope there is a major ripple effect,'' says McKay. ''With the UK show, people will talk about it in the coffee room and there's a lot of spread of knowledge from that. I hope it sparks watercooler conversations here about prostate cancer and [the importance of] checks by your doctor. I'm hoping it will improve the health of Australians across the board.''

On the strength of the show's international profile, 140 patients were interviewed for Embarrassing Bodies Down Under, but, according to McKay, many more applied. The question of why people offer to broadcast their humiliating and painful conditions on international television has intrigued Jessen, who has come to the conclusion that it comes down to desperation for a diagnosis.

''We do sort out really difficult cases,'' says Jessen. ''We will get it sorted. We have access to the best specialists. Some people find it really difficult to get things fixed, and so they're quite prepared to do a few things to get things sorted out. They'll say, 'I've suffered with this for 10 years. I want people to understand what I'm going through. I want them to understand about this condition'. So there are some really altruistic reasons why people do it.''

All patients go through a ''rigorous'' psychological screening process to assess their potential handling of the exposure, and receive follow-up treatment.

''[The patients] are assessed by a psychologist as to their competence to understand what they're doing,'' says Jessen. ''We also look at their cases quite thoroughly, as doctors, and decide whether it's appropriate or not.

''There have been quite a few we've turned away. We've still helped them but we haven't broadcast it. We're not so ruthless that it's just a television show. But there are some things that are just not quite right to broadcast for their sake or their family's sake.''

For Jessen, who specialises in sexually transmitted diseases, a patient who presented with symptoms of AIDS was one such example.

''The things he'd been suffering from set off warning bells and I said, 'Look I'll see him for a consultation but off-camera, because my suspicions were that this guy had symptoms of AIDS.

''He had no idea. He thought he had a tropical condition because he'd been volunteering to clear up after the tsunami in Thailand. I took one look at him and I had to sit him down and say, 'Look, I'm pretty sure this is what you've got'. We did an HIV test there and then and it came back positive.

''Although it would make, in a way, fascinating and very sobering television, it just wasn't appropriate for him to be televised.''

Embarrassing Bodies Down Under (premiere) Tuesday, 9.30pm, LifeStyleYOU.
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