Docutopia #17: Sick Nation—Can Healthcare Docs Help Remedy the System?

If Iraqumentaries dominated the nonfiction form half a decade ago, and the global economic crisis was the de rigueur topic in recent years, a new subject is currently coming into favor: the state of America’s healthcare system. This month alone, three documentaries are being released that touch on the dire state of the medical industry and Americans’ not-so-well-being: Bobby Sheehan’s Doctored, which opened in New York last week, Peter Nicks’s The Waiting Room, which opens today, and Susan Froemke and Matthew Heineman’s Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, which hits theaters next weekend.

While this confluence of healthcare-related movies risks producing a kind of marketplace glut—how many movies on the subject are audiences willing to see at one time?—there’s a potential power in the sheer number of docs advocating for change.

Taken together, viewers will encounter an overwhelming and persuasive picture of a dysfunctional profit-driven “disease-care” system, which over-prescribes drugs, traffics in patients like cattle, and eschews alternative and other means of preventive medicine in favor of a more costly system that, as one cynical medical professional says, “doesn’t want you to die and doesn’t want you to get better.”

Five years ago, Michael Moore tackled some of the same issues in Sicko, of course. These films provide similar anecdotes about the power of hospital industry lobbyists, and stories of ordinary Americans struggling to survive with or without insurance. But compared to Moore’s infamously biased stance, Nicks’s observational and nonjudgmental documentary is a refreshing change of pace.

A portrait of 24 hours in the life of an emergency room in Oakland, California, The Waiting Room sits back and watches the committed nurses and doctors as well as the ailing patients and their families go through the quotidian routine of what healthcare really looks like in America. We get to see a wonderfully empathetic African American head nurse, who oversees the waiting room with equal parts grandmotherly affection and severity—she chastises one patient for his bad language—as well as the affecting portrait of a father, fearing for the life of a daughter who is beset by a mysterious infection.

Like the work of Frederick Wiseman (here are the first eight minutes of his 1970 film Hospital), Nicks’s depiction balances the intimate with the societal, individual human beings with the broader structure in which they navigate—sometimes helplessly. But Nicks’s film is also less cynical than Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall portraits, which often have the hint of institutional exposé. The people in Waiting Room are far more sympathetic, from the hospital workers that honestly seem to be doing the best they can considering the over-crowded circumstances, to the people seeking treatment—a beautifully mixed group of people from different races, shapes, genders and ethnicities. This is America, the movie posits, and just about everyone is affably struggling to get by.

If Doctored hits viewers over the head with its meandering message of medical industry malfeasance and the benefits of more holistic, naturopathic treatments, Susan Froemke and Matthew Heineman’s investigative documentary Escape Fire more successfully presents the argument that alternative and preventive care is the country’s best chance for survival.

Both films address disciplines that have been widely accepted as useful, yet still remain outside of established medical practice (i.e. they’re not covered by insurance). While Doctored focuses on the proven benefits of chiropractics, Escape Fire uses acupuncture as one of its most powerful test cases. Acupuncture, the film makes strongly clear, is an effective and widely sanctioned treatment for pain over more potentially harmful and addictive pharmaceutical drugs. In between the statistics and testimonials from healthcare experts, Froemke and Heieneman find their most potent proof in the sympathetic story of Sgt. Robert Yates, a young man returning from war who goes from being an overmedicated zombie to a whole person, healed by meditation and needles pricked around his ears.

If it sounds touchy-feely, Escape Fire avoids such squeamish sentimentality by sticking to a sound structural argument: The only way to avoid over-burdening and exacerbating the problems in the healthcare system is to combine increased personal responsibility with a revised system that fosters that responsibility.

When one patient, a short-order cook who requires frequent hospitalization due to heart problems, is asked to adapt to a healthier diet from his usual “regular food”—grits, sausage and bacon—he immediately goes back to smoking cigarettes and eating Vienna sausages. Sarah Palin might disagree with officials telling people what to eat, but Escape Fire suggests that an improved personal diet is not only a good idea for patients’ health, but essential for bringing down exponentially rising insurance costs. As Shannon Brownlee, author of Overtreated: Why Too Much Healthcare is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, argues, we need “less hi-tech and more high-touch.”  

If these movies don’t do anything to change a system entrenched in the multi-billionaire-dollar medical industrial complex—which interconnects everything from hospitals to insurance companies to “Big Pharma”—maybe they can at least shift the conversation. After all, if An Inconvenient Truth could boost the sales of longer-lasting fluorescent light bulbs, maybe the current rash of healthcare docs could get a few more doctors involved in the long-term health of their patients—and get a few more patients to the gym.


Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for

1 comment Add Yours

Leave a Comment

  1. [...] and uniquely American systems that are deleterious to our citizens and our society. (Together with last week’s column about documentaries that portray the inadequacies of the healthcare system, it’s been a tough [...]

    October 3, 2012 | Permalink Reply