Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2013: Medical Histories

Undercover surgeon: the night porter chronicle

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 17 December 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7277
  1. Ara Darzi, Paul Hamlyn chair of surgery
  1. 1Imperial College London, London, UK
  1. o.keown{at}

When Ara Darzi decided to try being a hospital porter for a night, he learnt more than he expected about team relationships

I might have been the professor of surgery at St Mary’s in London, but the third year medical student looked right through me as he commanded, “You grab the feet and pull . . . then go up to the ward and bring down the next patient, and hurry . . . it’s because of you this list is running behind.” He certainly put me in my place.


This wasn’t the only humbling or confrontational experience I encountered during the memorable shift that I spent undercover as a hospital porter several years ago. I was drawn to the memory of that evening as I considered the stream of official reports, shocking tabloid headlines, and questionable statistics that have bombarded our NHS workforce and the UK public this year. Regrettably, it feels as though we are navigating our way through a deep slump in the history of the National Health Service at a time when we should instead be celebrating the many great achievements we have made leading up to this 65th anniversary year.

My motivation for putting down the scalpel and scrubs to don the apparel of my porter colleagues was to understand and ease my frustrations with the delays and inefficiencies that notoriously held up our operating theatres and pushed back our lists at St Mary’s. I wanted to understand why we didn’t have a smooth and constant flow of new patients arriving at the anaesthetic room and returning to the ward but instead experienced a disjointed coffee break fuelled service.

I cannot claim to be a forebearer of reality television equivalents, as it was certainly …

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