Scare tactics from a real Dr Death

Monday 10 November 2014

Once upon a time there was an old but very clever doctor called Dr Cameron.

He lived in a big house in a place called Tannochbrae with his housekeeper, Janet. He had a junior partner, Dr Finlay, who was also very clever and, being much younger than Dr Cameron, always wanted to try out new-fangled ideas on his patients. But Dr Cameron was much wiser than Dr Finlay, and in the end his common sense and long experience always triumphed.

I grew up with Dr Finlay's Casebook. I'd watch it in the 1960s on our black and white telly, my mother rapt as she watched the actor Andrew Cruikshank, who played Cameron, putting the world to rights and spreading calm and well-being among the poorly patients of Tannochbrae.

Such was my mother's worship of Dr Cameron that she even maged to find his doppelganger in a south Manchester surgery. Our family GP, Dr Fletcher, looked exactly like Dr Cameron; throughout my childhood, he cured my pneumonia and all other aches and pains. My mother thought he was God, and so did I.

Like Dr Cameron, Dr Fletcher was big and avuncular, a teddy bear of a man. Nowadays his patients might think he was a bit fat, but we found enormous reassurance in his solidity. He spoke with quiet authority, calmed our hypochondriacal tendencies and, along with medicines, dispensed pure common sense to his adoring patients. He was a cure in himself; good health, wisdom, and level-headedness were imbibed by troubled souls in his surgery, and the children sent away with a kindly pat on the head.

Do any Dr Camerons or Fletchers exist today? Or are they all hell-bent on scaring us to death? The latest initiative from Public Health England's dementia expert Dr Charles Alessi, has admitted that naked fear is its purpose in telling doctors to screen middle-aged patients for risk of dementia; we will be told how our 'brain age' compares to our biological age, with the implied threat that if we don't mend our ways Alzheimer's is just around the corner.

Yes, all the old scoundrels (smoking, drinking, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise) will not only make us obese and diabetic, but give us dementia too. This is according to a computer programme, not a brain scan or blood test, because these things will not diagnose future Alzheimer's. Nothing will. There's no cure, either.

Dr Alessi would do well to remember the fable of Peter and the Wolf. If doctors cry 'wolf' too often, we soon won't believe a word they say.

Dr Cameron might have been too fat and reassuring to succeed in medicine today, but given that we're all on the same journey to the same destination, I'd rather have him holding my hand than Dr Alessi.

Read Richard and Judy's Express column in full here.
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