If documentaries about the U.S. health care system have taught us anything in the recent past, it’s that it’s more of “a disease-care system,” as director/producer Matthew Heineman puts it. In his and Susan Froemke’s film, Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, in wide release last Friday, everyone from health insurers to pharmaceutical companies to patients themselves go under the microscope.
Setting the scene for this investigation of what needs fixing is this fact: the U.S. spends 17% of its GDP on health care, in the ballpark of $2.7 trillion, yet, the U.S. ranked in 50th place in terms of life expectancy when compared with others countries.
In a recent interview with Heineman, he explains it this way: “We have a system that profits and is oriented towards sickness, not towards health. And there’s a really powerful status quo that’s keeping this disease-care system in place.”
The claim is hefty, but when you see in the film what doctors and health care providers do in a day, you get a real sense of the tension between the business of health care and actually treating patients. The documentary’s aim is to explore solutions and alternatives, which is what the film’s title refers to as well.
“Escape Fire is really a metaphor for the idea that our health care system is burning,” says Heineman, “but there are these very simple solutions right in front of us. Why can we not start to pay attention to them?”
The film captures one microcosm of the health care system that seems to be paying attention to alternatives: the military. After a decade of war, the military is currently coping with an unprecedented number of soldiers navigating chronic pain, trauma, and now prescription drug addiction. In 2010, the Army Surgeon General prompted a task force to explore pain management and alternatives to narcotics. There’s a striking scene in the film where a young soldier in a wheelchair pours out a grocery bag of pill bottles onto his lap and declares that he used to be taking all of these medications. Contrast that with images of soldiers receiving acupuncture and going to meditation classes.
“I think [the military] is recognizing that they do have this problem of over-medication and this default reliance on pharmaceutical drugs,” says Heineman, “and so they’re beginning to look at ways to address this.” Heineman says it was “incredibly moving” to witness this kind of thinking about health care.