Dr Ellie Cannon on the gender healthcare gap, self-care during winter and growing up in Newcastle
Fresh on the heels of her GDST Alumna of the Year win, we chat to Dr Ellie Cannon of ITV This Morning, BBC Radio and Mail on Sunday fame, about why bringing more women into medicine can revolutionise British healthcare.
Most of us know Dr Ellie Cannon as ‘the GP who’s always here for you’.
Be that by busting healthcare myths on ITV’s This Morning, offering straight-talking advice on BBC Radio, making sense of science in her Mail on Sunday column or being a voice of reason across the many books she’s now authored.
Recently, Ellie has shared a stage with Prince William in a bid to de-stigmatise mental illness and, in 2019, was voted by her fellow doctors as being one of the most influential GPs in the country.
But far less of us probably know that Ellie’s medical career began right here in the North East – after being encouraged to study STEM subjects by her teachers at Newcastle High School for Girls [NHSG].
Every year, the Girls’ Day School Trust – a family of 25 independent girls’ schools across the UK (of which NHSG is the only North East member) – recognises the impact and achievements of its alumnae. At the end of 2022, Ellie was awarded their Alumna of the Year for her continued and significant contribution to public health, including her advocacy work during the pandemic in collaboration with the Cabinet Office, the Department of Health and NHS England.
Now, fresh on the heels of her award win, we chat to Ellie about how her education in Newcastle prepared her for life as one of Britain’s most recognisable GPs, what the future looks like for a buckling NHS, why women are still experiencing inequality in healthcare, and how we can all look after ourselves a little better this winter…
Congratulations on winning the GDST Alumna of the Year award! How do you think your time at NHSG helped you get to where you are now?
School was the vital underpinning structure of my childhood. Not just the weekly timetable and the school day, but also the school plays, French exchanges, skiing trips, concerts and, perhaps the highlight for me, the national science competitions we took part in.
I loved school and I’m certain that the protective scaffolding of the timetable combined with the encouragement for us to be whoever we wanted to be certainly afforded me so much more than A grades.
Perhaps that’s an insight into why, as a society, we should champion schools as an integral part of a child’s holistic health and wellbeing, as well as education. That’s something that’s incredibly pertinent to me now as a GP and campaigner, particularly since 2020.
Women in medicine are still the minority. Do you think learning in an all-girl environment meant this never seemed like a barrier to you?
During secondary school at NHSG, my science education was incredibly broad and we were encouraged to be women in STEM long before “STEM” meant anything other than the stalk of a plant!
Testament to this was the fact that around a quarter of my all-girl year group went on to study medicine. Growing up in a girls’ school, I never appreciated it was ground-breaking for girls to study – or not study – certain subjects. We were just consistently and tacitly encouraged to be our best and follow our ambitions.
What would you say to encourage more girls to consider a career in medicine?
Medicine is such a broad and varied career. I think it’s important to recognise this, as medicine offers so much more than you might first imagine.
Even if you’re a GP, you could choose very different pathways – that might be working in a busy GP practice in inner London or experiencing a very different day at work in a more rural area.
But more broadly, you can consider different careers within medicine, such as training to be a surgeon, a paediatrician, a pharmacist or a researcher. In fact, looking at some of Newcastle High’s alumna alone, you can see a strong mix of pathways: Professor Ruth Plummer is an oncologist who is also leading the way in experimental cancer medicine research, and Miriam Stoppard initially specialised in dermatology before going on to focus on women’s health and authoring several books.
A career in medicine is so far removed from the childhood image of a doctor in a white coat with a stethoscope. I’d say it’s an exciting area of study for both men and women.
Research has found a gender health gap in the UK. Why is making sure women’s professional voices are heard within the medical industry so important to ensuring we reach an equality of care?
Last year, for the first time, they published the women’s health strategy and there was a call for evidence on the experience of women, healthcare providers and women’s health charities. The response was phenomenal.
What came to light was the fact that, historically, women’s voices have simply not been heard – and that’s a consistent finding across disease areas, inter-generational health issues and across the careers of healthcare providers. Women are still poorly represented in certain specialties and women of colour are incredibly poorly represented, so it’s still a very topical and a very current fight for equality.
You find that women who have women-only health problems, like endometriosis, do not get parity of healthcare and end up waiting a significantly long time for diagnosis and treatment. But women who suffer from diseases that affect all genders are also experiencing a disadvantage in care, as much of the research has been carried out with men in mind – so drugs or treatments are more suited to a man’s body or weight.
There are a lot of levels of inequality from research, health promotion, public perception and professional representation but, ultimately, getting more women into the profession will begin to address this.
The GDST award recognised your advocacy work during the pandemic. Do you think our NHS will ever recover from Covid?
In all honesty, there have been problems in the NHS long before Covid. I grew up the child of an NHS doctor, so I was very used to conversations about the pressures faced by our NHS.
But there’s no doubt the pandemic has had a huge impact. The treatment and investigation of illnesses other than Covid being put on hold has led to enormous waiting lists. But, also, the cost-of-living crisis has created increased health issues within society. Whether or not you can feed your children and warm your home has huge implications for our wellbeing and, therefore, our need for NHS care.
The economic downturn is going to take lives just as Covid did.
Your work has really brought medicine into mainstream media. Why do you feel it’s important to reach people through journalism, TV and radio?
The media can be incredibly powerful in terms of educating us on certain health topics – popular media especially.
When you look at something like the tragic and preventable death of Jade Goody, we can see that media coverage played a huge role in raising awareness and encouraging more women to attend appointments for smear tests. It had a huge impact on the rates of cervical screening in the UK – and this is clearly far better than any poster in a GP surgery. This is also why charities and public health campaigns often look to celebrities to help amplify their messages.
If a health issue is covered by a soap opera, daytime TV or a tabloid newspaper, we know that so many more people will be reached. It’s also important to have NHS doctors like me doing this work, because these days you can often find unreliable information being shared on social media platforms like TikTok. We need to make sure that we use the media, but that we use it responsibly.
What’s one health-related fact you wish more people knew?
Having green snot does not mean you need antibiotics! We’ve definitely lost the art of self-care for winter viruses and there’s a myth now that if you have green phlegm you need antibiotics. While it does mean you probably have an infection, it’s more likely to be a viral infection and antibiotics simply won’t help.
I think we need to focus on more self-care for mild winter viruses and stop automatically contacting our GP as a first port of call.
What’s your ultimate career goal?
Chief Medical Officer! I have huge admiration for Chris Whitty and his predecessor, Sally Davies. I think it very much speaks to me as a GP as it’s the broadest look at the health of a nation – and I’m very interested in holistic healthcare rather than one specific health problem.
I can’t imagine I would ever get the role, but I would certainly enjoy it!