The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs, BBC 1, 9pm, directed by Emeka Onono and Jack Rampling

dr chris.jpg

I’ve invested almost two hours of my life in these two programmes presented by Dr Chris van Tullaken, with a side-line in epidemiology. He’s evangelical in his belief that too many people are being prescribed drugs they don’t need that don’t work and the side-effects are harmful to the patients and to society. Over prescription of antibiotics, for example, lead to mutations in the viruses being treated, many of them becoming ineffective treatments, leading to a spiral of higher doses and the search for antibiotics that do work. It’s a lose-lose situation. Fling in some damning statistics. An average health patient (whatever that is) takes 10 000 pills in his/her/its lifetime. In the last twenty years there’s been a 50% increase in drugs prescribed for chronic pain. Five million people in Britain are prescribed antidepressants every year. None of them are happy about it. The only ones laughing about it are the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry, who offer what Dr Chris calls ‘bribes’, free lunches to General Practioners (GPs) in a Medical Centre in Chingford, East London, with 14 000 patients and the highest antibiotic-resistance-prescription rate in the area. The GPs are a cynical bunch and don’t fancy Dr Chris’s chances of changing much in the short-term, but in terms of statistics they are 99.1% less cynical than me.

Dr Chris offers quite a few sweeteners (bribes) to the patients he helps come off prescribed drugs.  Take Crystal, for example, who is taking 30 pills a day for chronic pain, mainly opiates such as Tramadol and Codeine, but with other drugs, for example, a variant of Lactulose to help her shit. Crystal is the happy ending. We see her bent and in pain and telling Dr Chris that sometimes she needs to go upstairs to her flat on her bum, one step at a time. Even a private physiotherapist suggests Crystal will find it hard to avoid taking pills. Dr Chris seeks the advice of a one of the leading specialists in pain management who confirms opiates are shit for you and stop working when a tolerance is reached. What we are seeing is the placebo effect in action. If we think something works it will work. Dr Chris prescribes a Kung Fu specialist and number 1 superguy with 40 years’ experience teaching the right moves to those that want to learn. Crystal believes in Dr Chris. Chris believes in the number 1 superguy and the in the last shots of her we see her pain free and high kicking.

The problem of self-selection and motivation is brushed aside. For a scientist looking at the facts Dr Chris skips the obvious and plays dumber than Godot. Here’s the message he’s peddling, a wonder cue, or cure, endorsed by a paper published by a less than leading university, in a select medical journal and it’s free, ‘a miracle cure’ that benefits the ‘whole body, brain to bones’.  In a word, EXERCISE.

‘You can’t put that in a pill,’ Dr Chris tells us.

You also can’t put housing in a pill. You can’t put poverty in a pill. You can’t put decent jobs, for young people, in particular, in a pill. I’m not sure who this programme is aimed at. Raw Production Company sold it to the BBC who gave it a peak-viewing slot. I’m not buying. Neither should you.  It reminds me of ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith piling up slabs of sugar on a table to show how disgusting the person was before transforming their live with a strategically placed celery stick. I’d a few depressing thoughts about that too. But I tend to be 184% more depressed when I view a picture of Jeremy Kyle and hear  his prescription of ‘ger a job’. Yep. Dr Chris, medical man, should take some of his own advice and go for a long walk.