The comedian who can put his finger on the pulse of the NHS

Dr Phil Hammond owes the NHS a lot.

For the last 15 or so years since he first began combining his day job as a doctor with stints as a stand-up comedian, the stories he heard on hospital wards, his own experiences of medical school and the idiosyncrasies of his colleagues and patients, have provided much of his material.

Most of the time he's there to poke gentle fun at the often unwieldy organisation and confess his own inadequacies, but, occasionally, he does like to get serious.

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It was Dr Phil who was the first to expose the Bristol heart babies scandal in his Private Eye column. The practice of keeping babies' organs without the knowledge of their parents sparked a massive public inquiry and, ever since, he's become an advocate for whistleblowers who have a difficult story to tell.

However, if for much of the time he's occupied with the flaws in the system, he's also one of the NHS's biggest champions and would happily tell the coalition Government where it is wrong.

"The bit missing from NHS reform has been the empowerment of patients," says Dr Phil.

"Labour talked endlessly about it, but in all the medical disasters I've exposed over the years, it was patients and relatives who spotted there was a problem long before the establishment saw fit to act.

"It saddens me that lessons from Bristol may not have been learnt, but I've realised over the years that change in the NHS happens incrementally, not overnight.

"You have to keep consistently fighting for quality, safety and an open and accountable NHS, and we might just get there before I need to use it.

"Patients and frontline staff need to be encouraged to speak up, praising good care and spotting problems early so we can nip them in the bud. I'm vice-president of the Patients' Association, which has raised its profile, thanks to its association with people like Claire Rayner.

"However, there is now a tendency to think it's this great big organisation with enormous power, but, in fact, it's four people and a photocopier. I am a comedian and the NHS provides most of my material, but I like to think I provide at least some solutions to the problems."

While comedy, writing and being a father of two now take up most of his time, Dr Phil still does at least six hours a week in his Bristol surgery and the same again on admin.

Most recently, he's also been attempting to get to grips with the coalition Government's new White Paper to overhaul the NHS, which will see GP consortiums take over control of finances from the Primary Care Trusts.

"Most doctors who go into comedy, like Graeme Garden and Harry Hill, give up the day job, but I've kept my hand in," he says.

"It's not just because I need the material, but also because I enjoy seeing patients. I hate all the bureaucracy and hoop jumping – most GPs spend half the consultation staring at the computer – but the beauty of not being a partner is that you can follow the patient rather than

the money.

"I was at my first meeting of our GP consortium the other night. Some GPs like the idea of being in control of their finances, other don't, and that's the problem.

"By making it compulsory, you risk dividing the system. The White Paper is a consultation document but they cleverly chose to consult with people over the summer holidays and the changes now seem to be being introduced at the speed of light. Politics needs a more scientific approach where we pilot new ideas before implementing them across the board and we're not frightened to say something didn't work and try another tack."

While still a medical man at heart, Dr Phil hopes his dual career will save him from following in his father's footsteps.

"My dad was a brilliant doctor, but the profession burnt him out in the end," he says.

"However, I know you can't do comedy forever. I remember Adrian Edmondson talking about the pressure to be funny all the time and how there comes a point when you can't look at a sunset without wondering what the joke is."

Dr Phil Hammond's Rude Health Show, Leeds Carriageworks, September 15, and Memorial Hall, Sheffield, October 12.