The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare

Last week, I began my review of Doctored by saying it was the third medically-themed documentary I'd seen in a month's time, along with Head Games and Cut Poison Burn. Now I'm saying that Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare is the fourth such doc I've seen in a month's time. Even though some of the same material is covered in all four films, each one has made an impression on me, and their collective impact is enormous. I don't think I'll ever look at medicine the same way again. I'd recommend seeing them all, but if you can only see one, Escape Fire is probably the one to catch, as it's the most universal.

Directors Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke make the argument that America doesn't really have a healthcare system, but rather a pain management system. It has been predicted that, within a decade, healthcare costs could reach $4.2 trillion annually. Despite these rapidly rising costs, the care we are receiving is not always effective at making the problem go away. According to the film, 75% of current healthcare costs are spent on preventable diseases or, as best-selling author Dr. Andrew Weil says in an on-camera interview, things that could be improved by lifestyle choices. Testimony from other experts, including former Medicare/Medicaid head Dr. Don Berwick, points out that modern medicine has become about getting rid of one small part of the ailment (i.e. pain) rather than eliminating it in its entirety. Surgeries are done, prescriptions are written. And since pharmaceutical companies rely on selling lots of refills, there's little motivation to ever truly “cure” anything. Escape Fire is not critical of doctors; it recognizes them as being dedicated and compassionate. It is, however, critical of insurance companies that won't pay for alternative or non-invasive treatments, drug companies that create lifelong users, and an entire system that allows these things to happen.

A major reason why healthcare is in such bad shape is that doctors are paid on a “fee for service” basis, meaning that they have to see more clients in a day than ever before, and they get higher reimbursements with more complicated procedures. One of the most interesting people we meet in the film is Dr. Erin Martin, who leaves her practice over frustration that she can't spend as much time with patients as she'd like. She tells the camera that she's not interested in raising her “productivity level,” but rather in providing top quality care. Seeing fewer patients means less money for her clinic, though, so the pressure is there to cram in as many as possible every day. Dr. Martin's frustrations are shared by physicians everywhere. Another compelling subject is Dr. Dean Ornish, whose studies have shown that heart disease can be reversible with proper diet and exercise. Despite a comparatively easy solution, the medical system continues to authorize shunts and other surgical procedures for patients with coronary issues. Dr. Ornish is frustrated by this, but once again, the current system makes common sense approaches unprofitable.

Escape Fire uses the example of Sgt. Robert Yates as a case study. When we first meet Yates, he's on a transport plane coming out of Afghanistan, so pumped up with pain meds that he can barely stand. The medical staff on the plane have no clue what all his pills are. Once at Walter Reed Hospital, Yates opts for alternative therapies: acupuncture for his pain and guided meditation to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder. These things prove remarkably effective. Most people would be scheduled for surgery to take care of the pain and prescribed psych meds for the PTSD. Why? Because those things generate a profit for somebody, somewhere. Are they more effective for the patient? Not necessarily.

Does this have you thinking yet? Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare is 95 straight minutes of information and perspective that will clarify many of the lingering doubts you may have about your medical treatment. (And let's be honest – we all have them.) Heineman and Froemke pace the film so that it's easy to understand while still achieving great depth. The way they make each point through someone's personal story does a lot to drive the message home. Escape Fire is also briskly paced, always engaging, and never dry or esoteric. In this election year, healthcare has become a key issue. It deserves to be. This documentary pinpoints the things about our system that desperately need to change, for the good of each and every one of us. It also gives some excellent suggestions on how to achieve this change. If you plan on visiting a doctor this year, make sure you see this film first.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: Escape Fire can be seen in theaters, on demand, and via iTunes.

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare is rated PG-13 for some thematic materia. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

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