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Interview: Dr. Christian Jessen

Dr Christian Jessen is usually found inspecting dodgy rashes, unsightly growths and unusual genitals on his show Embarrassing Bodies. Unless you have been on Mars for the past five years, you
will know the show makes even the most experienced and hardened nurse wince and turn away in horror.

The impossibly handsome and witty presenter has momentarily taken time out to chat to Nursing in Practice about all things weird and wonderful.

It is clear why Dr Jessen has become a media darling over the past five years - it is because he is so wonderfully nice of course. He is able to talk to his patients in an adult, no-nonsense, direct way while still retaining his wit and charm.

Remarkably, however, if it were not for a particularly 'telly-unfriendly' Professor wheeling him out in front of the camera to talk about rising chlamydia rates, Dr Jessen would still be your normal jobbing doctor.

“I got into all this completely by accident. I had never considered becoming a TV doctor. But the media world is quite small, so when they see you can string a sentence together and aren't too camera shy, they will whore your name around,” he says.

Thanks to such 'whoring', Dr Jessen was an overnight success. He was offered show after show and he kept on
saying "yes".

“I cannot say there was any great skill on my part that any of this has happened, it has completely been down to other people telling me to do stuff,” he says.

The public reaction to Embarrassing Bodies soon turned his perception of his media work from “just a job” and a “bit of a laugh” to recognising what a well-valued and much needed role it really was.

He tells me he “always had a problem with doctors”, believing them to be not very good at engaging and educating the public on public health issues outside of a one-to-one setting.

In a somewhat defiant tone, Dr Jessen says: “[My media work] is as valid a medical job as any other and I quickly decided I was going to enjoy it and make the most of it.”

While he is extremely proud of his work on Embarrassing Bodies, he finds the world of celebrity “very odd and silly” and understands why a lot of nurses and doctors alike hate - his words - TV doctors.

“I find it disturbing that many people believe that just
because you are on TV you are amazing and the best of the best - I hate that aspect and I'm sure that's why a lot of the medical profession hate us TV doctors,” he acknowledges in his own self-deprecating way.

Dr Jessen balances his presenting work with two days a week in a London-based sexual health clinic, something he says several TV doctors make a mistake and compromise their credibility by failing to do.

Mind you, patients must get quite a shock when they see Dr Jessen sitting at his desk.

“Most of my patients check for the cameras when they see me, but that I can deal with. It's those patients that come to see specifically because I am on TV - they have actually hunted me down,” he says.

Dr Jessen may be able to turn it on for the camera but it is clear he is uncomfortable with the fame game and all the attention he attracts. The simplest of tasks, such as going to the supermarket, has now become impossible to do without someone showing him a rash in the frozen foods aisle, or giving him a lecture for having something in his basket that isn't the healthiest of choices.

The invasion of privacy card is played a lot by celebrities but Dr Jessen does have my sympathy. Sure, he could get out of the game if he so chooses, but - unlike many other celebrities, his role is not just to entertain but to inform and inspire.

So we should probably leave him alone if we spot him tucking into a pizza.

Us Brits have a reputation for being terribly prudish about, well, just about everything, but just one bad experience with a healthcare worker can make it almost impossible for a patient to talk about their 'down belows' or any other equally embarrassing part of their anatomy.

Dr Jessen warns just one 'off' day in practice could risk possibly turning a patient off the medical profession for life.

“You have to remember that for you it is patient no 48 in a very long day, but you are nurse number one in a very big life event,” he says.

The fact nurses are not doctors gives them a distinct advantage in getting patients to open up about their embarrassing problems, says Dr Jessen.

The key is to say the difficult words for them. “Patients behave themselves with nurses in a clinic, they want to speak correctly but struggle to use medical terms,” he claims.

He advises nurses who sees a young lad struggling to say
the word 'penis' to say a word that you believe would be the word they would use - such as 'willy'- to help them get over any embarrassment they feel.

The trick is reading your patients - finding out what language they like to use, how they like to be treated, what they like to be called. This trick is all part of medicine, says Dr Jessen.

We are all very shy and awkward when it comes to getting our bits out in private, never mind on camera, so why do so many people do it in front of the nation for Embarrassing Bodies?

What we may forget, says Dr Jessen, is that most of the people we see on the show are desperate for help. They have seen GP after GP and are more than happy to pay the price of showing the most intimate parts of themselves to millions of people with the promise of paid-for treatment.

So what embarrasses the seemingly
unshockable Dr Jessen? “Well it must be the time I found a champagne cork stuck in an old lady during an internal examination,” he recalls.

“I had a real moment where I didn't know what to do. It was like watching a sex scene with your mum. In the end I just held the cork up in the air and said nothing. She was a posh lady, very well spoken and wore a Chanel suit.

“She gave me this wonderful facial expression, like a naughty schoolgirl and simply said 'oh that will have been Ernest the other week'. It transpired her husband had used a champagne bottle on her in a moment of passion and neither had realised the cork had been left behind!”

Dr Jessen is emphatic when it comes to how
proud he is of the show and what Embarassing Bodies has done in terms of prompting people to go
to their local practice to check out symptoms or conditions they may have otherwise ignored. He takes great pride in the fact the show “breaks down the barrier” for patients feeling as if they are wasting a doctor or nurse's time in visiting general practice.

They say nice guys finish last, but Dr Jessen is proof you don't need to create a 'nasty' media persona to make the grade.