Dr Phil Hammond, GP and broadcaster

A friend was filling in time while at a conference in Boston by watching a televised baseball game.

On the first of many advert breaks, a menopausal woman cycled across the screen and said: "I had my laparoscopic colposuspension (bladder uplift) done by Mr Rick Winkerson MD and it's changed my life. Now I can cycle for miles without any leakage and my sex life is better than ever. I thoroughly recommend Mr Winkerson and his team, not just for the excellence of the surgery, but for their care and concern. For stress incontinence and prolapse, try the Winkerson Clinic. Phone now for a free brochure."

You may laugh – and so may Mr Winkerson, all the way to the bank. Since his advert was first screened, his workload and income have tripled. And why not? Mr Winkerson is apparently a very accomplished surgeon and his results are second to none. But what's the use if the punters don't know about it?

Americans can be as puritanical as the British over moral issues, but when it comes to advertising their services, they're simply the best. I've never understood why British doctors shouldn't be allowed to flaunt themselves.

"The voice you are about to hear is Mary. She is not an actress, but a patient who has had her bladder lifted ..."

Never mind scientific trials, all you need is a single happy anecdote, preferably from someone who could be mistaken for Joan Collins on a bicycle.

In the pre-reform era, most British doctors were anti-advertising. Medicine was a vocation and you didn't need financial inducements or a public profile to do a good job.

When a GP in the Black Country organised a lantern march along the streets outside his surgery "to celebrate the health of the community", he received angry protests from rival GPs who accused him of trying to poach their patients. He wasn't, but you can understand the suspicion.

In the new, competitive NHS, patient-poaching is a religion and you need to advertise to do it. Indeed, it's ludicrous even to contemplate a market system without advertising. If Carol Vorderman can increase the sales of a cholesterol-lowering spread by over 50%, just think what she could do for Prof. Smith's hernias.

And what else are hospital league tables if not a crude advertisement? They may be grossly inaccurate, they may include figures for surgeons who died ten years ago, but the principle has been widely supported by the public. You want to know what's going on. Every doctor working in a hospital knows who they'd send their mother to and who they wouldn't send their dog to, so why not you?

If doctors don't advertise themselves, others will do it for them. The Good Doctor Guide provoked a storm of controversy, but you've got a right to try to choose. OK, if you can't afford to go private, you may not get the consultant of your dreams but there's no harm in asking. And wouldn't The Crap Doctor Guide be even more useful?

Some doctors have freely embraced the idea of advertising. A new consultant in my area sent round his CV to all local GPs and is cleaning up on the private business. GPs are churning out practice leaflets and sticking them through letter-boxes on new housing estates.

One practice has even invested in a minibus to ferry patients to and from the surgery (and the partners' children around Europe in the holidays). When not in casual use, it proudly displays the name of the practice on both sides.

As for individual doctors, until recently we had to stick to a single brass name-plate with letters no more than two inches tall to attract the public gaze. In 1990, the GMC generously allowed us to provide factual information about our qualifications and services, but not opinion.

So I can tell you that I'm a member of Equity but I've retired from the RCGP. I have a diploma in geriatric medicine, a Writer's Guild award for best radio comedy script, two complaints upheld by the Broadcasting Standards Commission and I was once reported to the GMC by William Hague's Press Secretary. But I can't tell you if I'm a good doctor.


Guidelines in Practice, March 2002, Volume 5(3)
© 2002 MGP Ltd
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