When Doctor Who is on TV at Christmas 'less people die the following year', according to Birmingham Professor

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University of Birmingham professor uncovers life saving link with Doctor Who and Christmas

When Doctor Who is on telly over Christmas less people die the following year, according to a new study by a Birmingham professor.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham found a new episode of the popular time-travelling drama shown during the festive period - especially on Christmas Day - is associated with lower death rates in the subsequent year around the UK.

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They say their findings, published in the Christmas issue of The BMJ, highlight the positive effect doctors can have when working during the festive period. And they even suggested it may prompt the BBC to broadcast new episodes of Doctor Who every festive period, ideally on Christmas Day.

The good news is that a new episode of Doctor Who, starring Ncuti Gatwa as the latest incarnation of the time travelling Gallifreyan, is due to air on BBC1 on Christmas Day this year.

Sixty years ago, the BBC televised the first episode of Doctor Who, following a character called the Doctor, who travels through space and time in the Tardis. The show became a cultural phenomenon, and millions of viewers still watch worldwide today.

In the UK, many doctors work over the festive period, but the impact on the health of the general population is unclear. Researchers say that because Doctor Who has been broadcast for 60 years, it provides a "natural experiment "to investigate the impact that one doctor could have when working over the festive period.

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University of Birmingham Professor of Biostatistics Richard Riley examined the association between new Doctor Who episodes aired from December 24 to January 1 - a potential proxy for a single doctor working during that period - and the subsequent year’s age standardised death rates from the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

Only new televised episodes from 1963 were considered. Televised spin-off series, books, comics, and audio stories were not included. Between 1963 and 2022 a new Doctor Who episode was broadcast during 31 festive periods, including 14 episodes shown on Christmas Day. Thirteen of the 14 Christmas Day episodes were consecutive from 2005 to 2017.

Ncuti Gatwa on set in Bristol for the filming of the new Dr Who series. Bristol. 26 April 2023Ncuti Gatwa on set in Bristol for the filming of the new Dr Who series. Bristol. 26 April 2023
Ncuti Gatwa on set in Bristol for the filming of the new Dr Who series. Bristol. 26 April 2023 | Tom Wren SWNS

In time series analyses, an association was found between broadcasts during the festive period and subsequent lower annual death rates. Prof Riley said: "In particular, episodes shown on Christmas Day were associated with about six fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in England and Wales and four fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in the UK.

"The reduction was even higher when Doctor Who was consistently shown over the festive periods from 2005 to 2019, mainly on Christmas Day, with an average seven fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in England and Wales and six fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in the UK."

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He pointed out that the findings do not show causality and relate to one unique doctor, so may not apply to all medical doctors in the human race. But the analysis took account of population differences over time and he suggests that watching a doctor who is caring for people, “could encourage health seeking behaviour.”

Prof Riley said: "These findings reinforce why healthcare provision should not be taken for granted." He believes that decision makers at the BBC and Disney+ - the international broadcaster of new episodes - should reach enlightenment from the study’s findings owing to a possible health benefit of watching Doctor Who.

Prof Riley added: "Assuming the findings generalise beyond the UK, Disney+ has the opportunity to reduce mortality rates worldwide if it streams new Doctor Who episodes during the festive period."

In a linked editorial, Dr Bob Phillips, of Leeds Children’s Hospital, said: "This has to be a chance finding, but maybe there is truth in the notion that providing kind, thoughtful, timely healthcare, free at the point of need, to those who need assistance, really can make a difference.

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"The Doctor in Doctor Who represents the best of everyone who works in healthcare, and probably inspired many people to make better choices and live better lives, both on screen and off screen."

Dr Phillips suggests that while health professionals work this Christmas, six decades after the Tardis first landed on our screens, they can look at each small action they take and say “we’re saving lives” and “we’ve got a paper to cite to prove it.”

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