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This Doctor Can: Juggling medicine and showbiz

Dr Chris van Tulleken is an infectious diseases doctor, and one of the BBC’s leading science presenters, known for his work in Operation Ouch, 'Trust Me, I’m a Doctor', and 'The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs'. In this piece, he talks about the unusual conundrum of juggling a career both in medicine and in broadcast, and the struggles he faced along the way. 

In 2011 I started an academic training number in infectious disease (ID) and medical microbiology. A year later I was awarded a Medical Research Council (MRC) clinical training fellowship, so I applied for time out of my training programme and started what I thought would be three years of research toward a PhD before returning to clinical practice.

I was working in a molecular lab at UCL — far removed from patients — but what neither my training programme director nor my PhD supervisor knew was that I had just started to present a relatively unknown program on Children's BBC called 'Operation Ouch'. It's a strange anarchic mixture of snot, farts and moving medical stories from children around the country.

'Operation Ouch' didn't seem like the kind of programme that my supervisor, Greg, a molecular virology professor, would really be into – so I didn't say anything. I figured I would film it during my holiday, and no one in the lab need ever know.

Of course, filming didn't just take place when I was able to take holidays — it was the odd weekday too. But that was fine — research is flexible; I could always work weekends, evenings and nights. And so, I started a sort of Ponzi scheme with my own diary. Borrowing time from one area of life and paying it with some interest to the other.

I was building two careers.

Sometimes parallel careers have a relationship of mutualism but in my case they were parasitic. Wherever I was, I should have been somewhere else.

As I came to the end of the second year of my PhD I was anxious and unhappy. Help arrived in the unexpected form of my supervisor’s kids. They had started watching 'Operation Ouch' and told Greg. Far from being angry, he was relieved to have an explanation about my absences. I used my public engagement experience to do more outreach with the lab for kids, and I started involving the lab in the science documentaries I was making. Now the PhD was helping me to build a career in broadcasting and vice versa.

I started to make programmes about science and medicine for children and adults on the BBC, and being an MRC fellow with a decent understanding of molecular biology helped me interview experts all over the world.

I asked the MRC for a no-cost extension — twice, in fact — and finally handed in my PhD in 2017.

Leaving a prestigious national training number wasn't easy. I've taken a pay and status cut and I've had to reset some career goals that I've taken for granted since medical school. But I get to have the best of all worlds.

Dr Chris Van Tulleken

In the same week that I’d finished the PhD, my wife gave birth and I returned to the NHS after a 5-year absence from any clinical work. I went back part time in a job share with another registrar. But within a few months I needed a block of time off to do some filming. It was clear that combining a career in broadcasting with clinical service provision as a registrar on a training programme wasn't going to work as well as it had with research.

It seemed clear to me that I had two choices: to quit medicine or to quit broadcasting.

Quitting medicine didn't seem sensible. I didn't want to become another doctor on TV who doesn't actually see patients or work in the NHS. And broadcasting careers are uncertain and unpredictable.

But quitting broadcasting was hardly an easier choice. I really enjoyed some of the work and felt that shows like 'Operation Ouch' had real value beyond just entertainment.

My training programme director advised me to see the professional support unit at my deanery. They in turn advised me to undertake a series of coaching sessions. I was put in touch with Dr Hina Patani, an ICU consultant and trained coach. I had low expectations for this process, but it was spectacularly helpful. Hina forced me to challenge my assumptions and approach my clinical mentors with the question I had felt too embarrassed to ask: Was there a third option?

The ID consultants at The Hospital for Tropical Diseases (HTD), the infection unit of UCLH, could not have been more supportive. I left my training number and now work with a part time honorary contract, treating patients with infections and working in the HTD travel service. I have an appointment as an associate professor at UCL where I continue research, and I spend around 25–30% of my time working on radio and television projects.

Leaving a prestigious national training number wasn't easy. I've taken a pay and status cut and I've had to reset some career goals that I've taken for granted since medical school. But I get to have the best of all worlds; the stimulation and reward of seeing patients together with time for broadcasting, research and, most importantly, my own family.

Would you like to share your experience of becoming a doctor? Get in touch on Twitter via @thisdoctorcan.