Dr Ranj Singh has won over the nation on breakfast TV, Strictly and CBeebies, yet he still puts in the hours as an NHS paediatrician. Absolutely Education finds out more

Dr Ranj Singh follows in a fine tradition of medics who also entertain the nation (Harry Hill, Graeme Garden, Jonathan Miller, to name just three). He can sing and dance really well, he acts and now he writes books. Yet he still finds time to be a doctor – these days part-time – working as an NHS clinician specialising in paediatric emergency medicine. It is, he says, a terrific ice breaker when worried families turn up at his London hospital to find ‘that man off Strictly’.

Singh doesn’t see media work and medicine as strange bedfellows. “A lot of medics – even though they are highly academic people in a very vocational job – are multi-faceted. I went to university with people who had many different skills: writing, performing, music, dance, you name it. So, we are multi-faceted, and that for me lends itself really well to paediatrics. You have to have that approach as you’re dealing with kids, families, communication and complex medicine.”

His desire to be a doctor started really young. Indeed, he settled on medicine shortly after the typical childhood astronaut phase. “Ever since I was a few years old I just had a fascination with the way things work. I used to take all my toys apart, much to my parents’ frustration,” he says. “Also, I always had this desire to help people – I wanted to make things better for people.”

“It is a terrific ice breaker when worried families turn up at hospital to find ‘that man off Strictly”

He was an able student, acquiring his first GCSE at the tender age of eight – although there was a cunning plan behind this precocious achievement. “My parents were very keen that we were able to read, write and speak Punjabi so they used to send us to a Sunday school. So, the exit strategy – the deal – was if I got my GCSE in Punjabi I didn’t have to go. I didn’t particularly like going to school on a Sunday, so I applied myself. I thought, ‘I’m going to get this GCSE by hook or by crook’.”

When Singh “scraped a pass” not only did he earn time off on Sunday but also kudos at school. He recalls the headmaster almost falling off his chair when he showed him the GCSE certificate. “Other kids were getting certificates for swimming and sports. I really wasn’t a sporty kid, so I didn’t get all those rewards in assembly. I just wanted to be presented with a certificate!”

Dr Ranj Singh – Medicine man
Dr Ranj Singh’s love of medicine started young – but he always loved performing. Portrait: Dominic Turner

While Singh was always dedicated to getting good grades – he says you have to be on such an academic pathway – he also had performing in his bones. “Music was the very first thing I was told I was good at,” he says. His singing got him picked for the school choir and he won second place at Kent Music Festival. “That was the first ever certificate I got, so music was always something that was special to me,” he says. “While I was a really creative kid, that was something I put to one side and had as a hobby.”

His path into medical school was easier than the transition to real-world medicine. “It was a complete culture shock. Studying medicine is very different to practising medicine and that first year was a baptism of fire,” he says. “I thought, ‘this is completely different to what I expected and I’m not sure this is the right thing for me. I’m not getting that sense of achievement and satisfaction that I thought I would’.”

Having decided on a six-month sabbatical Singh was clearing his mind by redecorating his parents’ house when he was asked to interview for a paediatrician role. He got the job, which meant house decorating at speed, but the payback came in the realisation he’d found his passion. “I suddenly got this sense of, ‘this is why I became a doctor’,” he says. “It was fascinating medicine – every day was interesting. I was working with amazing people – paediatric teams are just the best people – and all of a sudden, I felt reinspired – I was destined to be a paediatrician after that.”

Paediatrics was the perfect fit not least because there is a creative side when you are working with children. They may be frightened, and they often can’t tell you what’s wrong. For children lucky enough to encounter Dr Singh at his London hospital, there’s a friendly and very empathetic manner. Little wonder then that his ability to engage with young people took him beyond hospital. CBeebies viewers learnt that doctors are there to help on Get Well Soon – a fun factual programme for very young children. He co-created this with Kindle Entertainment and it first aired in 2012, picking up a BAFTA in 2016.

Dr Singh soon came to prominence for adult viewers too, as resident medic at ITV’s This Morning, and with a multitude of appearances over recent years on everything from Good Morning Britain and Inside Out to 5 News – even Cooking with the Stars, where he showed he’s no slouch in the kitchen.Other media work includes contributions and columns for NetDoctor, Al Jazeera and Attitude. He has become, in short, one of those doctors trusted to dispense sound advice to the nation. But his performing ability has been the secret surprise. While he hoofed like a pro on Strictly, the voice he revealed in ITV’s All Star Musicals in March 2021 was a revelation and led to a one-off West End show in aid of Make a Difference Trust Theatre Fund. He has loved these opportunities. “It’s given me a chance, I guess, to be the fuller me!”

“If there’s any silver lining, it’s the hope that we will perhaps take mental health a bit more seriously going forward when it comes to kids and young people”

During COVID, Singh stepped back from media work to focus on being a doctor, but also made time to help spread health messages. “Doctors working in the media have done this for a very long time – albeit it has been more traditional platforms in the past,” says Singh. “Now, in the age of social media, we found that information, and particularly misinformation, spread very rapidly and could have a massive effect. That job putting out factual and sensible information – dispelling those myths – became even more vital. For me, that’s hugely important because it’s helping people to make better decisions.” Whether it’s reminding parents about the importance of the measles vaccination or adding calm good sense to diffuse the latest health scare, @Dr Ranj provides a welcome antidote to the viral spread of conspiracy theory and wild rumours.

Dr Ranj
Dr Ranj’s books, including A Superpower Like Mine, seek to help young people understand both body and mind and have confidence in themselves

Books for young people have been a natural progression. “Kids and young people are who I work with. They’re the ones I know how to communicate with. I thought to myself: ‘I want to write books that they find helpful and useful, that they can turn to for information or reassurance’.” Singh chose a subject close to his heart with How to Grow Up and Feel Amazing: The No Worries Guide for Boys. “There was a need for a modern, up-to-date guide for boys and young men going through a very challenging time in this world.”

Brainpower followed this and was written to help counter some of the mental health and wellbeing impacts of the pandemic. Then came picture books for young readers. A Superhero Like You was written as a thank you to front-line workers. “Also, a reminder to little ones about all the joy and positivity out there, even in a pandemic-stricken world. A Superpower Like Mine is a step on from that and is designed to inspire little ones to think about themselves and their own inherent superpowers and human skills that they can discover, build on and nurture.”

Singh sees the much-publicised mental health issues among young people as something that had been building for some time and came to a head during the pandemic. “I feel like we are being forced to deal with it. If there’s any silver lining from the pandemic, it’s the hope that we will perhaps take mental health a bit more seriously going forward when it comes to kids and young people.” He believes parents and carers have a vital role here. “You don’t necessarily have to have all the answers. I know people panic because they think they have to be a therapist all of a sudden, and I always say: don’t. Your job is not to be a therapist as a parent or a carer. Your job is to be a conduit – to create a safe space.”

“Kids are pretty good at working out who they are – we’ve got to let them explore and discover for themselves”

He’s been open in the past with his own journey as a gay man from a Sikh background. His advice to parents of children who may be struggling with identity or confused about growing up is straightforward: “Give them a space to explore who they are safely and be able to come to you when they are in trouble. Also, acknowledge the fact that children are very open minded and they get diversity – let them learn about it,” he says. “There are so many resources out there to help, and so many helplines for parents if they are panicking. But kids are pretty good at working out who they are and settling, eventually, on what they want to be. And we’ve just got to let them explore and discover for themselves.”

The doctor hasn’t hung up his stethoscope or his pen, nor indeed his mic and dancing shoes. With more books for children and young adults planned for next year, there’s also been a Celebrity Cruises gig last summer. And he’s still pursuing his first-love career, putting in the hours in the emergency room of a London hospital and helping children. “I still get to exercise that part of my brain and do my bread and butter. It’s the thing that drives me, the bit that gives me a sense of purpose.”

* A Superpower Like Mine is published by Hachette Children’s (£6.99). hachettechildrens.co.uk

Further reading: Cressida Cowell introduces a magical new series