'Doctor Who' eps aired at Christmastime linked to lower death rates
A new study has found a strong association between Doctor Who episodes aired over the festive season – between Christmas and the New Year – and a reduction in mortality rates in the subsequent year. The finding suggests that watching a doctor who is caring could encourage health-seeking behavior.
The first episode of the sci-fi series Doctor Who was televised by the UK’s BBC in 1963, the day after US President John F Kennedy was assassinated, and has since become a worldwide cultural phenomenon loved by millions.
Fans of the show know that the time-and-space-traveling titular Time Lord is not a medical doctor. Indeed, ‘The Doctor’ is a title they chose for themselves, and the show has never explicitly confirmed what discipline they hold a doctorate in. Nonetheless, a new study has examined the association between Doctor Who episodes aired between Christmas and the New Year as a proxy for a medical doctor working over the festive season and its effect on mortality rates.
Many medical doctors deliver healthcare in the UK over the festive period, but their impact on the population's health is unclear. The fact that Doctor Who has been broadcast for 60 years allowed Richard Riley, professor of Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham and author of the study, to conduct a (somewhat fitting) time series analysis to investigate the association between broadcasts over the Christmas period and subsequent annual mortality rates.
It’s unclear whether Riley considered wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff as part of his research, but he did name his study TARDIS, which stands for Televised festive broadcasts and Association with Rates of Death In Sixty years of Doctor Who, in honor of the Doctor’s preferred mode of space-time transport.
The researcher examined the association between Doctor Who episodes aired from the 24th of December to the 1st of January between 1963 and 2022 – as a potential proxy for a single medical doctor working during that period – and the subsequent year’s age-standardized death rates, taken from the UK’s Office for National Statistics.
He only looked at televised episodes from 1963 onwards, excluding televised spin-off series, books, audiobooks, and comics. During that time, a new Doctor Who episode was broadcast during 31 festive seasons, including 14 shown on Christmas Day. Since its reboot in 2005, yearly Christmas specials have been aired.
Riley found an association between broadcasts during the festive period and subsequent lower annual death rates. 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 overall. The reduction was even higher when Doctor Who was shown consistently over the Christmas-New Year period between 2005 and 2019, mainly on Christmas Day, with an average of seven fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in England and Wales and six fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in the UK.
“This paper has two hearts,” said Riley, referencing Time Lords having two tickers. “The first is about medical doctors, who work tirelessly to save lives and make others better, including over Christmas. The second is about the BBC TV series Doctor Who, which millions enjoy worldwide. Given the study findings, we should be even more grateful to health professionals working this festive season, and to the BBC and Disney+ for broadcasting Doctor Who on Christmas Day.”
Riley’s analysis took account of the flux in population differences over time, and he suggests that watching a doctor who cares for people on the small screen might encourage health-seeking behavior.
The researcher points out that his study does not establish causality, and his findings relate to one unique doctor, so it may not apply to all medical doctors on Earth, the planet located at galactic coordinates 58044 684884 in Sector 8023 of the Third Quadrant. But, he says, the findings reinforce why healthcare professionals and the provision of healthcare shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“If this is the impact a single doctor can have when working during the festive period, imagine how fantastic the impact would be of the entire healthcare workforce in attendance,” Riley said.
Riley is planning a follow-up study, ADRIC (ADverse Reactions in Children), named after the math-nerdy companion to the Fourth and Fifth Doctors, to examine the impact of excessively watching Doctor Who. Unfortunately, thus far, all funding requests have been refused.
The study was published in the BMJ.
Source: University of Birmingham