Scary medical news stories get a checkup

Dr Phil Kieran.

Dr Phil Kieran’s new TV show is a prescription for staying well, putting scary medical news stories under the microscope and revealing the truth, says Helen O’Callaghan

CORK-BASED TV doctor Phil Kieran confides he has been the butt of quite a few experiments for new Channel 4 series How to Stay Well.

The four-part programme is fronted by Phil, alongside A&E doctor Javid Abdelmoneim and GP Helen Lawal. The premise is to take the big scary medical headlines and show they’re not nearly as scary as they sound.

“They’re just the most scary version of the truth,” says Phil, who in one episode can be seen covering up one eye and reading with the other from a bright screen in a dark room, all in a bid to see whether reading a brightly-lit screen in a dark environment can lead to blindness.

Dr Kieran also examined whether smartphones affect male fertility and found that, yes, they can have an impact on sperm motility in lab conditions but, reassuringly, there’s no proof they affect sperm in the human body.

“What has a much bigger effect is smoking, being overweight, and tight underwear; all of these have a substantial proven effect,” says Phil, who previously starred with Dr Pixie McKenna in RTÉ’s You Should Really See a Doctor.

In the process of finding out which worrying medical stories we should genuinely be concerned about, the three medics looked at whether out-of-date make-up can cause serious infection, how close you must be to someone who sneezes to become infected, and the link between processed meat and cancer. This got a lot of attention last year after the World Health Organisation reported on it.

“There are a lot of problems with eating processed meat every day, but I’d be more concerned about the salt and calorie-intake,” says Phil.

“You’d be likely to put on a lot of weight. I mean, nobody kids themselves rashers and pepperoni are good for them, but processed meat isn’t dangerous in small amounts. It’s not nearly on a par with the dangers of smoking.”

Scary headlines aside, Phil finds what frightens most people when it comes to their own health are the lumps and bumps or getting a pain in their head or chest.

“They often try to ignore these problems as long as possible. They’re scared if it’s a question that might have a serious or dangerous answer. A pain in the head has them scared of a brain tumour, with chest pain they think they’re getting a heart attack. Men, in particular, will put up with things for ages,” he says, recalling that when he worked in a hospital, one man he met had let things go to crisis point.

“He came to us when he’d lost the sight of his second eye. He’d woken up blind in one eye about 18 months earlier and decided there was nothing to be done about it. By the time he presented, he was in kidney failure. He had undiagnosed diabetes, it cost him his vision and he had to go on dialysis.”

Dr Kieran says some of the patients who attend his practice on Cork’s Washington Street get a kick out of the fact their GP is on TV. “Most of our patients have been with us before that all started, but some have joined because they’ve seen me on TV. It doesn’t make me a better or worse doctor that I’m on TV.”

Also, with his TV persona possibly making patients feel they know him well, what do they call him when they visit his surgery?

“All sorts of things: Doctor, Dr Kieran, Dr Phil, Phil. Whatever they’re comfortable with, I’m comfortable with.”

The busy GP and father of two young sons doesn’t spend much time mulling over what are essentially non-crucial issues, but he does worry that 10% of all the under-12s he sees are substantially overweight.

“There’s certainly a huge increase in the numbers of under-12s being classified as obese. Ten years ago, about half as many children would have been obese.”

In almost all cases it’s due to calorie intake, he says, particularly consumption of high-energy sports drinks and even fruit juices.

“Parents say ‘ah, but they’re getting their fruit’, but if children don’t burn off these increased calories, they’re going to be overweight.”

What also concerns him is that the parents of these overweight kids don’t present out of worry about their child’s weight.

“It’s always something else that brings them. Their child being overweight is never the primary reason and, because GPs are under so much pressure, we struggle to give them time on the stuff they present with, not to mind the stuff they haven’t come in with.”

He thinks the celebrity doctor/TV medic phenomenon is a positive one.

“It gets people talking more about health-related issues. A lot of programmes talk about subjects people wouldn’t have talked about before, sexual problems, genital problems. Anything that makes people more aware and more involved in their own health is brilliant.”

  • How to Stay Well, Channel 4, Monday, 8.30pm.


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