A near-death experience has helped GP Dawn Harper to perfect her bedside manner writes Roz Laws.
It is barely 8pm and we’ve only just had our tea, but on television a man is cheerfully unzipping his trousers to show off a nasty injury to his genitals.
Then a woman appears via Skype to talk about how she wets herself.
It’s not what we expect to see before the watershed, but this is Embarrassing Bodies: Live From The Clinic.
Patients are queuing up to expose their conditions, from excessive sweating to genital warts, on live telly, beaming into a slick studio built in the heart of Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
“There’s no shame, we’re all the same,” encourages presenter Dr Dawn Harper. It seems that people feel comfortable revealing all to her – as she says, we think we know her, and her co-presenter Dr Christian Jessen, better than our own GPs.
Out of the surgery she is just as warm and friendly, happy to chat about the latest award-winning Channel 4 series and her own agonising experience of the NHS.
She has been both a patient, when she nearly died in a horror car smash, and a terrified parent when two of her three children were born prematurely.
It’s the reason she now pushes herself so hard to raise money for disabled children, taking part in hugely challenging charity cycle rides.
Last weekend she cycled a mere 62 miles – just a warm-up for a marathon she is planning next year when she will ride 100 miles a day for ten days.
She took up cycling to recover from the horrific road accident which nearly killed her in 2003.
“I was just crossing the road with my husband Graham,” she remembers. “Suddenly a car came out of nowhere, running through a red light, and ploughed me down. I was left unconscious in the road.
“It could have been so much worse – I am very lucky to be alive – but my left knee was shattered.
“I needed an operation and it took two years to fully recover. I hated being immobile. I’m not a good patient!
“I took up cycling as part of my physiotherapy. I remember sitting on the bike and trying to flex my knee enough to do just one revolution of the pedals. It was agony, but I worked hard to get the function back.
“Now I do silly amounts of cycling – about 100 miles a week – as ‘ticking over’ training. I’ll do a couple of 20-mile rides and then 40 miles at the weekend.
“I’ve cycled from London to Paris and Amsterdam before, and next year I’m hoping to do something really crazy – a 1,000 mile ride over 10 days.”
Dawn lives in Stroud in the Cotswolds with Graham, a fellow GP, and their three children, aged from 15 to 18. She raises money for disabled children’s charities because her two youngest needed specialist care when they were born early.
The youngest, Harvey, arrived at just 32 weeks and was rushed to intensive care.
“It was a very frightening time,” remembers Dawn.
“On the one hand, I remember thinking how much worse it must be for mothers who don’t understand what all the monitors do – I had worked in such a hospital unit, so it was less scary.
“But I also knew darned well the implications of numbers dropping or alarms going off. That wasn’t nice.
“It made me much more empathetic with patients, and now when I see disabled children I think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.”
As well as raising money for research into complications in pregnancy, Dawn has helped to save the NHS an extraordinary £280,000 a month through Embarrassing Bodies.
The advice given out by the TV series and website saves patients from flocking to surgeries, or saves money by encouraging people to seek treatment early.
Now Dawn thinks Skype technology could be a way forward for GP surgeries everywhere.
“One of the most common patient gripes is that they can’t get an appointment, so this would certainly be a more convenient way for doctors to ‘see’ people,” she says.
“I can see the NHS embracing new technology like Skype to make it more efficient.”
Dawn has seen for herself how Embarrassing Bodies has raised awareness of a host of ailments.
“I like to think I’m approachable,” says the GP who practises one day a week in Stroud. “But, surprisingly, I still get patients who come into the surgery just because their condition has just been featured on EB.
“My husband’s junior partner was moaning the other night that he gets 40 extra appointments generated by the show. It has increased the workload of GPs, but it’s good that people are seeking help at an early stage.
“I’m proud of the achievements we’ve made with the award-winning website, which helps self-diagnosis.”
Embarrassing Bodies has just won its Birmingham-based production team, Maverick Television, their second BAFTA award, prompting Dawn to attend another star-studded ceremony.
“I do sometimes pinch myself. I went to medical school, how did I end up at the BAFTAs?” she laughs.
* Embarrassing Bodies: Live From The Clinic is on Channel 4 on Tuesdays. For more information go to www.drdawn.com or twitter.com/drdawnharper