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The Doctor Will See You Now, by Max Pemberton

April 7, 2012
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It’s always something different when the doctor puts down the pills and picks up the pen. With Max Pemberton, you have to wonder if he ever puts down the pen. With regular columns in The Daily Telegraph and Readers’ Digest, and now his third book, The Doctor Will See You Now, there can’t be much time left for his patients.

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I very much enjoyed his previous books, Trust Me, I’m a (Junior) Doctor (detailing his life as a first year house officer) and Where Does It Hurt (recounting a year practising medicine on the streets) and was looking forward to this installment. This book describes his year working on a Care of the Elderly ward, honing his skills in general medicine before training as a psychiatrist. Presumably his fourth book will be called Take Two And Call Me In The Morning.

In order to skirt around confidentiality issues, Pemberton fictionalises his encounters with patients and staff. Furthermore, the whole book feels novelised as events dovetail nicely together for pace and narrative. However, that doesn’t damage the essential truth of what Pemberton is trying to tell. Many of his patients serve as springboards or examples of a wider social issue he wishes to highlight. Michael Foxton did a very similar thing in his darkly humorous Bedside Stories. Pemberton utilised this in his previous books also; homeless people, the mentally ill and the elderly (sometimes all in one patient) are all areas where the failings of the NHS and our wider society are seen more keenly.

However, Pemberton is fiercely supportive of the NHS. Rightly so. Universal healthcare, free at the point of access, is something to be always proud of. Instead, Kafka-esque and byzantine rules and regulations, personified by the anonymous hospital managers draw his ire, as well as ‘Big Pharma,’ private finance initiatives, and nursing homes that medically cosh their residents with anti-psychotics.

Pemberton writes in a rather simple style. This gives the book an air of un-put-down-ability. Obviously aimed at a lay audience, some medical students may get impatient with this book but the inverse is surely worse. Anything intentionally aimed at medical people runs the risk of being terminally dull. The characters (based on real people, or a composite of real people) are not wholly two-dimensional but could do with more fleshing out. However, this isn’t a novel so it is arguable whether that is necessary. It must be said that care is taken to build the patients’ stories, to make sure they matter as much as the point they are being used to convey. An endeavour worth while.

I won’t go as far to say that this should be compulsory reading for medical students because compulsory reading is universally read by no-one. However, it is an enjoyable read, especially if you like reading about medicine outside of the lecture theatre. It does make for a change of pace from all the textbooks and academic papers.

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