‘Escape Fire’ offers plain-speak, solutions for our healthcare woes

CorrespondentOctober 25, 2012 

A still from the documentary ”Escape Fire: Lessons for the Future of Health Care.”


  • Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare B- Cast: Robert Yates, Don Berwick, Andrew Weil, Shanon Brownlee Director: Susan Frömke, Matthew Heineman Website: Length: 1 hour, 35 minutes Rating: PG-13
  • Watch, listen A panel discussion will be held Friday at the Chelsea Theater after the 7 p.m. showing of “Escape Fire.” The Chelsea is at 1129 Weaver Dairy Road in Chapel Hill.

The national debate over health care can get absurdly heated, but Matthew Heineman and Susan Frömke’s documentary, “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare,” is a cool, calm and collected inquiry into what has been called by many a badly broken system.

The refreshingly bipartisan (meaning there’s no mention of Obamacare) film takes its title and premise from a method, illustrated by an opening sequence featuring stuntmen and real firemen, of creating an escape route from an approaching wildfire by starting another fire.

Therefore, an “escape fire” is a solution to a life-threatening problem.

After engrossingly detailing the issues, Heineman and Frömke’s thorough thesis gives us those escape fires, those viable solutions, that we didn’t get from such previous docs as “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s informative but biased 2007 documentary diatribe about health care.

Actually, maybe they’re just strong-sounding suggestions, concerning lifestyle choices and alternate medical treatments, but when American health care costs are getting up to more than $3 trillion annually, the film makers’ incredibly convincing case – via a sobering array of facts, statistics and compelling anecdotal evidence – that we need to change the conversation is seriously worth considering.

One of the most affecting threads throughout the film is the story of Sgt. Robert Yates, an infantryman who returns home from Afghanistan, depressed, disturbed, and addicted to so many different prescription pills that his attending medics have trouble sorting them out.

Yates, who describes himself as a “redneck, South Louisiana boy, just an ole hillbilly,” admits to being skeptical of Eastern medicine, but is admirably able to kick his addiction by giving healing processes such as acupuncture, meditation and yoga a shot.

In segments titled “A National Dependency,” and “The Dark Matter of Medicine,” the billion-dollar industry of pharmaceuticals is criticized by industry experts such as integrative medicine proponent (and frequent talk-show regular) Dr. Andrew Weil, noted physician Dr. Dean Ornish, medical journalist Shannon Brownlee and Dr. Steven Nissen, Cleveland Clinic chairman of cardiovascular medicine, who complains that half the commercials on the networks are for pharmaceutical agents.

“The ads always end with the same phrase: ‘Ask your doctor,’ and people do,” Dr. Nissen explains, “and doctors wanting to please their patients will often prescribe it.”

This concept is most troubling in the case, explored in the doc, of a massively marketed drug named Avandia, that in 2006 was the No. 1 selling diabetes drug in the world. Information was withheld that Avandia increased the risk of heart attack by 30 percent, and FDA restrictions were implemented, but it took several years for it to be withdrawn from drugstore shelves.

Mind you, “Escape Fire” isn’t against all pharmaceutical drugs; it’s just reasonably concerned with how we’ve become a quick-fix culture that too often disregards the root of ailments.

It’s that kind of thinking that, in another affecting thread, causes primary care physician Dr. Erin Martin to quit her Dalles, Oregon clinic position, because she felt demoralized being paid for the quantity of patients she could see in an hour. Martin goes on to work at Dr. Andrew Weil’s University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, where she can take more time to treat individual patients.

Though mostly thankfully devoid of flashy techniques like pop-song punctuation and “gotcha” journalism, there are some overly familiar touches like ominous music (provided by techno-pop master Moby) embellishing sinister shots of Washington, D.C., and the inevitable “act now” website plug at the end.

Also a downside of this doc is that it deals with a lot of information most folks will already know, as in “we get it – America is the most obese country.”

However, those embellishments don’t hinder the film’s touching optimism and noble notion that a less high-tech, more high-touch world of healing could exist.

Summing up the film’s guiding goal, former Head of Medicare/Medicaid Dr. Don Berwick says, “I don’t blame anybody, they’re just doing what makes sense, and we have to change what makes sense.”

In its plainspoken matter-of-fact moments like that, “Escape Fire” makes the most sense.

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