Here’s some good news: the mortality rate in the UK, and maybe the world, should be down in 2024 thanks to some intervention from the BBC and Disney. Admittedly, to believe that you need either a very poor understanding of statistics or a very optimistic faith in the influence of television, but that’s most people, surely?
Every December, the British Medical Journal (BMJ), one of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world, lets its hair down a little with an edition that has some fun. No lies are included, but sometimes papers make suggestions that shouldn’t be taken too literally. One tradition involves pretending to draw outlandish conclusions from real, but almost certainly spurious, correlations.
This year, the BMJ has teamed up with another beloved British institution, the science fiction series Doctor Who, to explore whether one doctor working over the festive season can have a meaningful impact on people’s health.
At first sight, the answer appears to be yes.
It is now 60 years since Doctor Who was launched, and 31 of those years have been marked by an end-of-year special. Fourteen of these were aired on Christmas Day itself, with the rest between December 24 and January 1.
Professor Richard Riley of the University of Birmingham compared UK mortality figures in years following the airing of these specials and the years when people had been forced to find other sources of entertainment.
Riley found a reduction in deaths in years following the screening of specials. For certain aspects of the study, the decrease even achieved statistical significance.
Riley didn’t look at global mortality, but if Doctor Who specials really were saving all those lives, we might expect the benefits to be worldwide, in proportion to the number of Whovians per country.
Riley found festive season specials were associated with 3.6 fewer deaths in the UK in the subsequent year per 10,000 person-years. Despite four years of specials with a Scottish doctor, the Scots don’t seem to be benefitting particularly strongly, because the UK-wide effect was barely half as strong as that for England and Wales alone.
The effect was larger (6.0 per 10,000 person-years in England and Wales) when the special was screened on Christmas Day itself, rather than in the surrounding week. Indeed, Christmas Day specials were associated with a statistically significant difference (P=0.003 in England and Wales), which specials in general were not.
Given that this year had the first special aired on Christmas Day for six years, one might conclude the morgues will be particularly quiet in 2024.
Lest the findings be criticized for lack of a plausible mechanism, Riley proposes exposure to the representation of a doctor you’d want to see may lead people to consult medical experts during the year. Sometimes this may be timely enough to identify life-threatening illnesses that would otherwise be missed until too late.
Riley cites previous evidence that Doctor Who has inspired many fans in their life choices, including in some cases to become scientists. Presumably, this has had considerable benefits to national health, although these would take much longer than one year to be expressed.
More generally, the work could be seen as indicating the life-saving benefits of medical professionals, particularly those known for their empathy and commitment, working over Christmas.
Pre-empting those who might criticize the study, Riley turns to the Doctor’s own quotes. “I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there,” and “There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
Even those sympathetic to the study may question Riley’s exclusion of the COVID years, when death rates spiked enough to undermine the overall conclusions. However, with the Christmas Day specials having been run every year between 2005 and 2017, Riley used the appropriately named interrupted time series analysis, a statistical technique to avoid the results being distorted by general trends in improvements in healthcare.
Such studies always need to choose their inputs carefully. In this case, conscious of the Doctor’s own words, “I hate repeats”, only new releases were considered. Spinoffs, whether televised or in other media, were also ignored. Riley used age-standardized annual mortality rates rather than crude death rates, preventing the results from being distorted by the aging of the population (which, if the conclusions were believed, has been facilitated by the Doctor extending lifespans).
In an acronym so stretched it warps space timey-wimey stuff, Riley called the study Televised festive broadcasts and Association with Rates of Death In Sixty years of Doctor Who (TARDIS).
Riley notes he has four times unsuccessfully sought funding to investigate if watching too much Doctor Who in youth causes harm (ADverse Reactions In Children).
Taking all that into account, the health benefit of watching this year’s special should be considered doubtful, but maybe you’d better, just to be safe.
The study is open access in the British Medical Journal.