‘Escape Fire’ and ‘The Waiting Room’: Two Docs Solve the Healthcare Debacle

After tackling an incredibly complex subject for his latest documentary Escape Fire, producer-director Matthew Heineman took away a very simple fact.

“One of the things that I learned in making the film is that the human body is amazing,” Heineman tells TakePart. “We have this amazing capacity to heal, but our system isn’t set up to allow that to happen.”

As you might’ve figured out, when he starts talking about “our system,” Heineman is no longer referring to the remarkable form and function of the human anatomy. The system he finds lacking is the comparatively dysfunctional nature of healthcare in America.

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The U.S. way of practicing medicine comes under great scrutiny in two current documentaries.

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care, the film Matthew Heineman made with Susan Fromke, hits theaters and video-on-demand next week. The Waiting Room, a new documentary from Peter Nicks, just opened at the IFC Center in New York. The two films take completely different approaches in describing the challenges that exist within the current system, yet both aim to reignite the discussion around one of the nation’s most pressing issues right before the November elections.

Of the two, Escape Fire (the film’s title derives from the technique of firefighters setting the immediate radius around them ablaze to exhaust fuel for the flames and protect themselves from further damage) is the more proactive. The documentary crisscrosses the country, stopping like a doctor making house calls to diagnose what ails our system before prescribing workable solutions that seem as obvious as they are effective.


“There was a lack of empathy out there that I saw as a result of lack of familiarity.”

“Like many Americans, both Susan and I were just confused by this crazy, polarizing, hyperbolic topic,” says Heineman. “[We] wanted to get at the heart of how our system was broken, why it doesn’t want to change, and find people out there that are going to try to change it.”

The filmmakers found some surprising remedies offered by both the private and public sectors. In common, solutions tend to emphasize preventive measures to keep people out of the doctor’s office in the first place.

Notable physicians such as Dr. Dean Ornish and wellness experts such as Dr. Andrew Weil assist Escape Fire in piecing together an optimistic look at a plausible future where healthcare is reconfigured to reward providers for quality of care rather than quantity of patients served.

Innovative techniques—exemplified by the military’s experimentation with acupuncture rather than addictive prescription drugs for soldiers and supermarket chain Safeway’s healthy living aids employee incentive program—show that ingenuity is ongoing in America, even if the country appears to be going nowhere politically.   

For The Waiting Room filmmaker Peter Nicks, the political standstill itself felt like an opportunity. Inspired by stories he’d hear from his wife, who worked as a speech pathologist at Oakland, California’s Highland Hospital, Nicks embarked on a film that would replicate the experience of the millions of uninsured Americans who no longer see the emergency room as a last resort, but as the only place where they cannot be turned away for care.

“I felt that what we really needed was a film that allowed an audience into the lives of people who, to some degree, weren’t really being represented in the conversation around healthcare reform,” says Nicks. “There was a lack of empathy out there that I saw as a result of lack of familiarity, and I’m a big believer that if you sit down with somebody and get to know them, you’re going to see them differently.”

The Waiting Room’s new perspective goes beyond the wide spectrum of patients, who range in age, race, gender and need, growing weary of a system of built-in limitations and inefficiences that allow the good intentions of doctors and nurses to go only so far.

As a film, The Waiting Room is part of a much larger storytelling project that overflows onto a Web site. Nicks plans to continue unveiling footage from his almost half a year spent in Highland’s ER in the months ahead. The people in the film may become restless with their access to care, but observers don’t have to be, urged on to interact with others and build a community that can share knowledge and—perhaps—work toward common-sense fixes.

Likewise, Escape Fire offers what Heineman terms “an Escape Fire first aid kit [but] instead of Neosporin and Band-Aids, it’s filled with tools for people to take action.” The online kit outlines steps to protect personal health and to participate in improving the collective health of the surrounding population.

“Change does not have to come from Washington,” Heineman says. “That change can happen on the local level, community by community, hospital by hospital, clinic by clinic.”

Adds Nicks, “We hope we can reframe the conversation around healthcare reform in a way that brings humanity back into the equation.”

Do you have any simple steps to upgrade the American healt care system? Leave your innovative actions in COMMENTS.

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Based in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Saito writes about the movies. His work has appeared in Premiere, the L.A. Times and IFC.com. He recently founded the indie film site The Moveable Fest. Email Stephen | @mfrushmore