Is the TV adaptation of Adam Kay’s diaries from his time as a junior doctor an accurate portrayal of life on the wards? An NHS doctor rates the first four episodes
By Simon Ward, Content Editor
When This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries Of A Junior Doctor was published in 2017, it was an immediate hit. Written by comedy writer Adam Kay, it detailed his years as a doctor training in obstetrics and gynaecology. The diary entries were funny, painful, truthful, and occasionally very sad, and it gave an insight into life in the NHS few of us have ever observed.
It also landed against a backdrop of junior doctors – the term used for doctors working towards becoming GPs or Consultants – locked in a row with the Government over a controversial new contract. During the dispute and resultant strike action, sections of the media slammed doctors as “greedy” for demanding better working conditions and pay, with then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt ultimately imposing the contract upon the workforce, despite the British Medical Association’s concerns it would lead to less safe patient care.
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Kay’s diaries opened the public’s eyes in how we view doctors. Because what’s often forgotten when we call them heroes (or villains) is the person at the end of your bed trying to solve your health problems, even save your life, is no different to you. And they’re doing all they can for you despite unimaginably challenging circumstances, situations and conditions, and often at great personal cost. Doctors, he showed, weren’t more than human – just human. Kay himself left the medical profession in 2011 after the toil had become too much.
The huge success of Kay’s book means this TV adaption starring Ben Whishaw (A Very English Scandal) is one of the most highly anticipated shows of the year – and it’s a series that more than lives up to its hype. Whishaw’s Adam is halfway through his training – no longer the most junior clinician on the ward, but certainly not the most experienced. Newcomer Ambika Mod, meanwhile, portrays Adam’s junior colleague, Shruti, in a dysfunctional mentor-mentee partnership.
This is Going to Hurt is frequently hard to watch as the drama unfolds, not just for the graphic and emotive conditions the patients present with, but also for witnessing doctors and nurses attempting to manage the ensuing chaos within a struggling system, all the while trying to keep themselves sane with some semblance of a work-life balance. Some viewers will find moments in this series distressing. But this is still a comedy, and even in bleak moments, humour crashes through – and, frankly, it needs to. Although a word of warning: you’ll never look at a Kinder Egg in the same way again…
This is Going to Hurt shows the struggle and strain on the medical profession
For Kay, whose biggest supporters have always been the people who work in the NHS, he hopes the show is both a love letter to his former profession, but also a reality check: “When the book first came out, I had lots of messages from young doctors, and some not-so-young doctors, saying that until they read the bit in my book, they thought they were the first who cried in the locker room.
“But the truth of the matter is that every doctor finds himself in that locker room, but none of them ever talk about it. “You’re a bloody doctor. You bloody get on with it, stiff upper lip.” And that’s very isolating on top of your bad day. You feel like you’re different and you’re failing.
“Hopefully in showing these complicated people, dealing with an almost impossibly difficult job in the only ways they can, I hope it’ll remind doctors and midwives and nurses and healthcare professionals, as much as it teaches the rest of the people watching it, that it’s OK not to be alright. And just because you’re doing an amazing job, you’re not a superhero. You do still have these emotional limitations.”
We asked Sarah, an NHS anaesthetic doctor living in South London, to watch the first four episodes of This Is Going To Hurt and assess just how accurate the series is to real-life on the wards.
“Even with years of experience working in theatre and labour ward, I found myself wincing at the medical realism”
This is Going to Hurt has been praised for its unflinching medical realism
“The first episodes feature lots of scenes of surgery, speculum exams, and babies arriving into the world in dramatic circumstances. The gory details and procedures are very realistic, and even with years of experience working in theatre and labour ward, I found myself wincing at times.
“What really gives it authenticity, though, is the portrayal of the surrounding hospital environment; cramped A&E cubicles for the most intimate of examinations, the farce of acting like the curtains offer soundproofing for private discussions, packed waiting rooms and rushed consultations where neither doctor nor patient is satisfied with the outcome. I raised an eyebrow during one resuscitation scene, but as it results in a happy ending it would be mean-spirited to complain too much.
“One thing I thought Kay’s original book did brilliantly was how he used medical jargon as he went along, but with non-patronising translations for non-healthcare readers. Whishaw’s Dr Kay breaks the third wall to help viewers out from time to time, but there are a lot of medical terms in the dialogue. I hope people don’t feel excluded from the action – though that’s an important issue for my profession to address, full-stop!”
“The show-must-go-on attitude will raise a wry smile amongst healthcare workers”
Ben Whishaw plays a version of comedy writer and former junior doctor Adam Kay
“I think any healthcare worker watching this will smile wryly as they recognise the ludicrous conditions the staff in the show have become accustomed to. The emergency buzzer that cries wolf, the urgent paint job when dignitaries are en route (a poor cover-up for years of outstanding repairs), and the show-must-go-on attitude to dangerously short-staffed shifts.”
“Both main characters lie to the important people in their lives about how their jobs are making them feel. I know I’ve done this”
Ambika Mod and Ben Whishaw play Shruti and Adam
“The most convincing aspect of this series for me is the characterisation of the doctors and midwives we meet. They are complex, and no one is all good, or all bad. Either Adam Kay hasn’t been kind to himself in writing his part, or Ben Whishaw has been brutal in the portrayal. Adam, here, is flawed and struggling, trying to prove to others he can do a job he’s not convinced he can do himself.
“His emotional responses to the challenges his patients, colleagues and the hospital force upon him are totally understandable reactions for a human being – but doctors are meant to rise above this. We watch him make mistakes as a result or fail to convince his colleagues when he is in the right, but it’s clear he wants to do the right thing for his patients.
“His relationship with Shruti, his SHO (more junior colleague), is brutal, and her role is captivating. Initially, she’s dismissed as useless (an experience many women in healthcare and medicine, particularly those of colour, are painfully familiar with), but even as Adam takes more interest in her as a colleague, he seems incapable of being overly nice to her and is often frankly bullying.
“Ambika Mod captures the back-breaking struggle of trying to get better at your job (without killing anyone) while working flat out on short-staffed shifts where the advertised finish time is a work of fiction and spending the hours you have away from work studying to pass endless exams, sacrificing the social contact you so badly need to feel connected to the humanity you are allegedly trying to help.
“Both main characters lie to the important people in their lives about how their jobs are making them feel about themselves and keep secrets about the very serious problems they are facing at work. I know I’ve done this. Are we protecting our loved ones from distress, or protecting ourselves from their feared disappointment in us?
“And why do some of us put a career that at times makes us so unhappy above the needs of the people we love?”
“This series captures the human side of those of us working in a hospital, for better and worse”
This is Going to Hurt is being billed as one of the best TV shows to watch in 2022
“There are a couple of scenes I find difficult to believe – conversations Adam has with patients or relatives and convenient clinical situations where he gets to redeem himself. But if I could re-write moments in my medical career and live out happier endings for my patients or give a better account of myself, I would.
“But it’s a minor quibble because I think this series captures the human side of those of us working in a hospital, for better and worse, with just enough of the hilarity from Kay’s book and stage show to make the more challenging scenes easier to swallow.”
When is BBC One’s This Is Going To Hurt on TV?
This Is Going To Hurt airs on BBC One HD (CH 101) on Tuesdays at 9pm, with the first episode airing on Tuesday 8 February. New episodes will be released weekly, with this seven-part series concluding on Tuesday 22 March.
If you miss any episode, you can stream it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer.
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Image credits: This Is Going To Hurt © Sister / Anika Molnar