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Michael Mosley used science communication to advance health and wellbeing. We can learn a lot from his approach

Michael Mosley speaking on a BBC program.
BBC/AP

Overnight, we learned of the tragic passing of Michael Mosley, who went missing last week while on holiday on the Greek island of Symi.

The British celebrity doctor was a household name in many countries, including Australia. Mosley was well known for his television shows, documentaries, books and columns on healthy eating, weight management, physical activity and sleep.

During the days he was missing and once his death was confirmed, media outlets have acknowledged Mosley’s career achievements. He is being celebrated for his connection to diverse public audiences and his unrelenting focus on science as the best guide to our daily habits.

From medicine to the media

Mosley was born in India in 1957 and was sent to England at age seven to attend boarding school. He later studied philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford. After a short stint in investment banking, Mosley opted to train in medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Rather than forging a career in clinical practice, Mosley started working at the BBC in 1985 as a trainee assistant producer. In the decades that followed, Mosley continued to work with the BBC as a producer and presenter.

Mosley became a popular public figure by applying his medical training to journalism to examine a breadth of health and wellbeing topics. In 1995, following his documentary on Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes ulcers in the stomach, the British Medical Association named him medical journalist of the year.

His other television work on diet, weight management, exercise and sleep earned him Emmy, BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts), and Royal Television Society award nominations.

Over the past decade, Mosley published several books on exercise, healthy eating, intermittent fasting, sleep and behaviour change. He sold millions of copies of his books around the world, including at least one million in Australia and New Zealand.

Alongside his wife, Dr Clare Bailey Mosley, he recently embarked on a live theatre show tour, yet another vehicle to bring his key messages to audiences.

A trusted voice

Mosley became a trusted voice for health and wellbeing throughout his journalistic career. His television program Trust Me, I’m a Doctor drew on his medical qualifications to discuss health and wellbeing credibly on a public platform. His medical training also inferred credibility in examining the scientific literature that underpins the topics he was communicating.

At the same time, Mosley used simple terminology that captured the attention of diverse audiences.

For many of Mosley’s outputs, he used himself as an example. For instance, in his podcast series Just One Thing and companion book, Mosley self-tested a range of evidence-based behavioural habits (while also interviewing subject-matter experts), covering topics such as eating slowly, yoga, listening to music, cooking, gardening and drinking green tea.

His focus on intermittent fasting and high-intensity training was fuelled by his diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, and his work on sleep health was based on his experience with chronic insomnia.

Michael Mosley sitting in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2013.
Mosley was popular among Australian audiences. DOMINIQUE CLEARY/AAP

At the most extreme end of the spectrum, Mosley infested himself with tapeworms in the pursuit of exploring their effects on the human body.

By using himself as a human guinea pig, he fostered a connection with his audience, showing the power of personal anecdotes.

Some controversies along the way

Despite his notable career achievements, Mosley received ongoing criticisms about his work due to differing opinions within the medical and scientific communities.

One key concern was around his promotion of potentially risky diets such as intermittent fasting and other restrictive diets, including the 5:2 diet and low-carb diets. While some evidence supports intermittent fasting as a way to improve metabolic health and enable weight management, Mosley was criticised for not fully acknowledging the potential risks of these diets, such as a potential to lead to disordered eating habits.

His promotion of low-carb diets also raised concerns that his work added to a diet-focused culture war, ultimately to the detriment of many people’s relationship with food and their bodies.

More broadly, in his efforts to make scientific concepts simple and accessible to the general public, Mosley was sometimes criticised for overgeneralising science. The concern was that he didn’t properly discuss the nuance and tension inherent in scientific evidence, thereby providing an incomplete synthesis of the evidence.

For example, Mosley conceptualised the blood sugar diet (a low-carbohydrate Mediterranean-style diet), which was criticised for lacking a strong grounding in scientific evidence. Similarly, associating his name with e-cigarettes may have drawn unhelpful attention to the topic, irrespective of the underlying details.

Two bowls of food on a table, containing grilled chicken, rice, legumes, and colourful vegetables.
Mosley influenced many people’s eating habits. KucherAV/Shutterstock

What can we learn from Mosley?

Overall, Mosley has been objectively successful in communicating scientific concepts to large, engaged audiences. Mosley showed us that people want to consume scientific information, whether through the news media, social media, podcasts or books.

His passion and persistence in using science to promote health and wellbeing have likely supported public health efforts across the globe.

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