Annabel Ferriman: Which doctor was happiest on 26 May, 1989?

Never let it be said that doctors are a homogeneous group. Quizzing doctors over the last few months about their hopes, fears, inspirations, and aspirations, the BMJ discovered an infinite variety of opinions. Take politics, for example. We asked each of them to name the best and worst health secretaries in their lifetime.  We discovered that while one health secretary might inspire fierce admiration in one of our respondents, the same politician was quite likely to provoke anger or ridicule in another.

Alan Milburn, who was health secretary from 1999-2003 in the last Labour government, was a case in point. John Burn, professor of clinical genetics at Newcastle University, chose him as the best health secretary in his lifetime and said of him “He really understood the potential of genetic medicine and invested in our specialty.”

Iona Heath, former president of the RCGP, on the other hand, says of him: “He set the whole destruction of the NHS in motion, made what Lansley did possible, and then went off to earn tens of thousands a year advising the private sector and that giant purveyor of diabetes Pepsi.”

And while Klim McPherson, Visiting Professor of Public Health Epidemiology at Oxford University thinks Andrew Lansley was the worse health secretary in his lifetime (“almost criminal”), Michael Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance, thinks that Lansley, along with Alan Milburn, Patricia Hewitt, Alan Johnson, and Jeremy Hunt, was the best.

Why has the BMJ been quizzing doctors about these matters? Because we are launching a new weekly series, called BMJ Confidential, starting this week, in which distinguished doctors and medical leaders answer a list of 24 questions, limiting themselves to no more than three sentences per question.  The answers are brief, but nevertheless revealing.

Some of the most interesting tales came in response to the questions: What was your worst mistake? And to whom would you like to apologise?

Max Pemberton, medical columnist of the Daily Telegraph, said his worst mistake was when he diagnosed a pulmonary embolism as constipation and treated the patient with laxatives, while Professor Burn admitted that he once fell asleep when he was holding an oxytocin syringe awaiting his moment to inject it into the thigh of a woman who had had a post partum haemorrhage. “I was doing obstetrics training. I’d previously been awake for a very long time. Fortunately she suffered no ill effects.”

In the forthcoming series, you will discover who would like to eat pork scratchings, banana custard, and Thai curry for her last supper; who was happiest on 26 May 1989  (Liverpool 0; Arsenal 2), and who would spend £1m on getting a man pregnant.  Pet hates included the Daily Mail, management jargon, and “the perverse effects of filthy lucre in medicine.”

Some people refused to answer our questions. One politician said:  “To answer these questions honestly would cause trouble. I could “do” flippant but people don’t like that much either. And for politicians, it always ends up being quoted back repeatedly and out of context.”

Another leading epidemiologist refused because the questions didn’t “suit my humour. Anyway, I don’t have a personality,” while another highly placed doctor said: “The questions are, I feel, rather personal and the answers might not be entirely honest!”

Certain themes emerged. The importance of football in some men’s lives, the desire to apologise to certain patients, the joys of grandchildren, and the need to keep alcohol consumption under control. Two leading women doctors said their guiltiest pleasure was eating food in front of their favourite television programme: spaghetti omelette in front of Come Dine with Me, in one case, and Snickers bars in front of The Thick of It, in the other.

But the most common sentiment expressed was a passion for medicine. Not one doctor said he or she regretted going into medicine and most described their joy and gratitude that they had pursued such a satisfying career.  I found the replies inspiring. And I hope you do too.

Week One: Clare Gerada

Annabel Ferriman is news editor, BMJ.