This site is intended for health professionals only

Interview: Dr Pixie McKenna

Doctor Pixie McKenna, Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies onscreen doctor, radio host, writer and GP fixes the medical puzzles that others wouldn't have the nerve to investigate. 

Mckenna, who grew up in Cork, Ireland, has always aspired to have a medical career because for long as she can remember she was helping her GP father at his practice.

“All my family are medics… my dad was a GP and all his brothers were doctors. We had patients calling to our door, they rang our phones so I was very heavily involved. My mum ran the practice for him, we had a surgery in the house and then we had a surgery up the road from our house.”

This upbringing led her to follow in her father's footsteps, graduating from University College Cork Medical School in 1995. Following this McKenna moved to Cambridge to work as part of Cambridge's vocational training scheme in general practice for four years. She reached her goal and received her certificate in general practice training in 1999.

Her journey to become a GP helped McKenna to discover her special interests, which she says are, “women's health by default because I'm female; I do a lot of sexual health and dermatology”.

Now as a GP she feels she should lead by example.

“I am very conscious [of leading by example]… as a child in the supermarket my mum would never have anything bad in the trolley incase she bumped into a patient. I don't think doctors should smoke or be obese as I think it's very difficult to motivate someone to do something when you are not healthy yourself. I don't mean you have to be a health freak but I think you have a responsibility to your patients,” says the GP who enjoys swimming, running and cycling.

The Irish born GP says she has always wanted to explore different things even learning French and German languages at school and felt a media career was something she was happy to explore. “I never wanted to do the same job five days a week… I always wanted to do something just a little bit different and I was at the right place at the right time,” she says. Her passion for learning has led her to become a well-known medical personality in the media.

McKenna first stepped into the spotlight when she starred in the BBC show Freaky Eaters. This launched her media career, so she headed to Channel 4. “One of the commissioners from Channel 4 was watching [Freaky Eaters] and said why don't we put her in Embarrassing Bodies, they had the concept so they threw the three of us together quite randomly and by pure chance it worked really well,” she says.

Embarrassing Bodies is now what she is most commonly recognised for. In the show she works alongside her onscreen doctors/television personalities Dr Christen Jessen and Dr Dawn Harper.

During the show all three doctors have consultations with patients about medical conditions they are self-conscious about.

“Its superb I love it, we really enjoy doing it, it's hard work and it's not all glamour, and the ultimate aim of it really, as a public service broadcaster, is that we can teach people. On the outside looking in you may perceive it to be a Channel 4 typical shock tactic with nudity, but even if that's what is drawing people in they are learning, so I feel very strongly that we have over the years educated people in things they wouldn't necessarily talk or think about,” says the mum of one.

When filming she is accompanied by Jessen and Harper who McKenna says she has developed great relationships with.

“Its great, we were just thrown together by a production company and we are really good friends. Dawn is a great friend of mine and Christian is my TV husband, he likes his large wardrobe space and his extra time in make-up and he likes to be the most beautiful of all three of us. It is great and I think the reason for that is because we are entirely different.”

McKenna says the main aim of the show is to help patients. “The purpose of the programme is that we are essentially fixers, we are like the Phil and Kirstie on Location, Location, Location… we are like the dating agency trying to match the correct people with the correct specialists,” she says.

When it comes to the show McKenna says she doesn't find anything particularly awkward to film onscreen even though the medical problems may be embarrassing.

“Members of the public think it must be really embarrassing to have to examine a testicle, but that's just what I do. I mean, I hate feet that's the only thing I would say. Over the years I have been given a lot of foot cases on the show,” says the GP who practises at Freedom Health on London's Harley Street.

Although she does say feeling empathy for patients isn't something you can avoid.

“I mean you can feel sorry for people who put up with things for a long time or who literally wear their illnesses everyday, particularly if that is something that's smelly, distressing or makes people look and stare at you.”

Additionally to Embarrassing Bodies, McKenna has been involved in a show called Food Hospital, where she investigates what people are putting into their body. She says: “It is different in the way its about using food and medicine and it's a completely different approach as its aimed at people who have conditions that are either incurable or are common everyday conditions, and who don't respond to traditional treatments. So [the show] looks at their diet and [questions] is what they are putting in their mouths having an effect on their general well-being?”

When asked what her favourite onscreen role has been she says: “Definitely Embarrassing Bodies. I love it and probably my favourite series was Embarrassing Teenage Bodies, because I think we all went into that expecting to be dealing with hormonal, spotty, grunting teenagers when they were amazing, inspiring, kind, considerate and everything I didn't expect them to be.”

Additionally to her work on television she has written many columns that have been published in the Irish Mail, Mizz, Zest and Best.

McKenna says: “I do enjoy it, I love writing because its easy to do, it's interesting, it keeps me up to date.”

But she does have TV appearances she'd rather forget about.

“I think the worst thing I ever did was Mastermind… people have this bizarre idea because you're a doctor your intelligent and when I arrived to do the show the other contestants all had flash cards, and I think they anticipated that I was smart and clever… [just] because you're a doctor doesn't mean you're bright. I was absolutely invisible. I answered some classically horrendously bad questions,” she says.

Playing a part in the media makes McKenna a representative for the medical profession, a role she feels is very important. "Doctors in general need to be good communicators and for me it's trying to simplify complex scientific things so that people can understand. We have a habit in medicine of using big words and abbreviations and patients don't really understand it. When actually, in reality, anyone can make something simple, you've just got to think about it. That's a skill because when people understand what's wrong with them and why the issue has come about, they are much more incentivised to do something about it.”

McKenna still feels there is more to conquer.

“I think we could do a lot better on our cancer education, by the time I am 50 the chances of getting cancer will be 50/50 and while we have more people living with cancer than dying from cancer we are seeing an increased case load because of our lifestyle [for example] we eat, drink and smoke too much. There are loads of lifestyle factors. In terms of our knowledge we could improve our statistics greatly and I think we can do an awful lot more,” she says.

During her time in London she never strayed far from Ireland, saying: “I did a few NHS locums along the way but though a significant proportion of my time was working in London I did work part time in Ireland, so I would commute. I did that for quite a long time.” From working both in Ireland and London McKenna has been able to work across different sectors of healthcare. “My predominant experience is private because it's very different in Ireland” she said.

From experiencing both McKenna says: “For me, I think it's fundamentally important to be able to give people time. And I think it's something that has gone completely out of the window.”

This explains why Mckenna has stayed working within the private sector as she says in the NHS, “people don't have time to talk to patients and understand the complexities of something that might seem relatively straight forward. People don't have the time to talk about all the things that go with having an illness or a long-term condition or anxiety about something. I think that is the essence of the luxury of private practice. I would have a heart attack or a nervous breakdown if I had to do a seven and a half minute consultation, assuming I could do it.”

Expressing her views on the NHS McKenna says the NHS needs to seriously change.

“The NHS is in quite a critical state, people are going to have to start paying for things. I think it's a utopian idea to expect it to be able to continue to support the population, and particularly when it's expanding and ageing. I know people will say that's awful, but people do [already] pay for things within the NHS. [For example] you pay for your malaria prescriptions if you are going away… I think we could expand that.

“I also think people should be penalised for not turning up to a hospital appointment. I think it's awful and shocking. I think we need more GPs… and a rethink of how we train GPs and how they work, and equally with nurses; they need to be paid more to encourage people into the profession and to stay in the profession, that's the problem, we are loosing resources.”

It terms of what the future holds for general practice as a business model, McKenna says: “I honestly don't know, I thankfully don't work in it because all my colleagues who are in the NHS all seem stressed and overworked and, I go to work and I have a really nice job. I couldn't go and see 40 patients in a day.

"I feel really strongly that… people have a responsibility to look after themselves, you can't smoke, not exercise, be overweight and not turn up [to NHS appointments] and then say the NHS is rubbish, when really you're rubbish yourself. I think we would have a better service if we were all better patients.”