The man behind Trust Me, I’m A (Junior) DoctorBMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c2840 (Published 02 June 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2840
Donald Asprey speaks to Max Pemberton: journalist, author, and specialist registrar in psychiatry
Name: Max Pemberton
Position: Specialist registrar in psychiatry
Biography: Author of two novels, Trust Me, I’m A (Junior) Doctor, recounting his first year as foundation year doctor, and Where Does It Hurt?, about his time working in an outreach project for homeless people and drug addicts. He is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, commenting on social, ethical, and healthcare issues. He also writes for the Reader’s Digest, the Mail on Sunday, and the Evening Standard. He works full time as a specialist registrar in psychiatry in London. As well as a medical degree he has a first class honours degree in anthropology. His column in the Daily Telegraph won him the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ public education award.
When did you start writing?
I was self financing my study, but in the first year I was already running out of money. I was going to have to give up medical school. Then I saw an advert in the Guardian advertising for a medical journalist. I had no experience but it was a last ditch resort. I was amazed when I got the job, summarising morning news. I started at 4 am, finished at 8:30 am, and then I had to run from there to lectures.
How did you come to work for the Daily Telegraph?
When I graduated I had the idea to write a column about my experiences as a junior doctor and bigger political issues. I wanted to write about the NHS from a personal perspective with a human interest angle, so making political issues personal issues. I just wrote to the Daily Telegraph, told them about my idea, and included three columns. To my utter amazement I was asked to come in for an interview. I started the same week I started as a junior doctor.
Why did you become a psychiatrist?
I always wanted to do psychiatry, especially old age psychiatry. When I was 15 I did work experience in a geriatric day hospital with a strong component of psychiatry. I was fascinated by the patients and working with them. I felt that this cohort of people was voiceless and had no one to defend them. As a doctor you are in a privileged position as an individual to help and defend this group of people. I got really angry about anything I perceived as inequality, and I wanted to have a platform on which to raise those issues. That was why I applied to do medicine.
Do patients ever recognise your name?
Well Max is a pen name. The reason I use a pen name is that I want to make a clear distinction between being a writer and a journalist and being a doctor. I want to send out a signal to my patients that this is different, that I am a clinician. But yes I get recognised: there are photographs with all my columns. A lot of people come up to me and give me their life stories.
Who is your target audience?
I have been quite surprised. I imagined a lot of Daily Telegraph readers to be middle class and middle aged, but I actually get a lot of letters from younger people, teenagers, and people in their early 20s. I hadn’t expected them to have heard of me. I have been quite surprised about the number of people who have nothing to do with medicine who just buy my books. I think it is the cover. It is quite jovial looking, that is probably why they are picking it up from the shelf.
Should prospective medical students read your book?
People have told me that they read it and it really inspired them to do medicine. Others say that they read it and it really scared them. My intention was not to scare, but I would say that if you are thinking about medicine you should be interacting with people, getting work experience. You have to go out there and make sure that you are applying for the right reason. Of course, reading my book doesn’t hurt.
Why did you take mephedrone and write about it in the Telegraph?
I am actually quite anti-drugs because of the sociopolitical environment in which they exist. But this was legal. I was reading a lot of the press coverage that was at odds with what patients and friends were saying to me. So I decided to try it. I wanted to write about it in as open and honest a way as possible, moving the debate on in the media. The experience of younger people is that it is really good. Telling them it is bad and that it will kill them is not going to help. They will look at their peers and see that they haven’t keeled over and think that adults are trying to spoil their fun.
Any advice for those who want to pursue writing?
It is very difficult and very competitive; in many ways it is easier to get into medical school. You have to persevere. A lot of people look at me and think that I have landed this column, but they don’t appreciate the hours and hours it took to get to that stage. I had late nights, not going out with friends, writing for free. It takes a long time.
Competing interests: None declared.
From Student BMJ