The five best health films are more mainstream than you think

Roll up. Katling, CC BY-NC-SA

Hollywood makes films that excite and exhilarate; films that make us laugh, cry, connect with humanity – and above all make box office bucks along the way. While most of us would happily say we were going to see an action movie, what about the latest health flick?

Three years ago we began compiling a list of health-themed films that could help teach medical students. Our initial criteria was that any film should have a minimum tomatometer rating of 70% on online rating website Rotten Tomatoes. From an initial list of 15, we now now have 32 recommended films that students choose from to review and present in class.

Here’s a short list of some of my favourites:

1. Contagion (2011)

Let’s get outta here. Alphab.fr, CC BY

A star-studded cast battle to contain a new deadly virus. The film tackles the issue of how health officials and doctors respond to a pandemic but also the ethics around how scarce resources could be allocated in a time of crisis. While the virus wasn’t real, the portrayal of the health professional response to pandemic was realistic.

The fear of deadly viruses is never very far away in the public imagination – take the current ebolavirus outbreak in West Africa. To plan well for something like this covers policymakers, drug makers, pathologists and a sense of social responsibility from everyone.

Tomatometer rating: 84%. Box office takings: US$135.4m

2. Sicko (2007)

Moore insurance needed. Shannon Kringen, CC BY

Filmmaker Michael Moore’s documentary on the US healthcare system was an eye-opener, detailing the politics of providing healthcare and the tension between personal and governmental responsibility for health. It also covers the influence that multinational corporations (in this case insurance and pharmaceutical companies) have on the health choices people make.

Ultimately, Moore takes a critical stance of the system in the US and the its failure to cover its citizens – he found nearly 50m Americans with no health cover at all. Heated political fighting over president Barack Obama’s introduction of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which aimed to make health insurance more affordable shows just how live the issue still is.

Tomatometer rating: 92%. Box office takings: US$36m

3. Milk (2008)

Milk and White completely incompatible. CC BY-NC

Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn as the eponymous Harvey Milk. In 1977 Milk became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the US before he was assassinated – by a resentful Dan White (played by Josh Brolin) – the following year. The film earned eight nominations and two Oscars and takes on issues around sexual orientation and prejudice but also about society and later ignorance around an emerging disease: HIV and AIDs.

Tomatometer rating: 94%. Box office takings: US$54.5m

4. Super-Size Me (2004)

Fries in the face of logic. Gauravonomics, CC BY

What happens when one man exclusively eats McDonald’s for one month? Plenty of food for thought with this one …

Tomatometer rating: 93%. Box office takings: US$20.6m

5. Amazing Grace (2006)

A modern take. Mr Stacey, CC BY-NC

The movies that provoke the most discussion among our students – the litmus test for educational value – are not necessarily what you may expect. Not strictly a health film, granted, but with modern health implications. Abolitionist William Wilberforce’s life’s mission to abolish slavery is akin to the contemporary challenge of persuading politicians, faced with a strong tobacco lobby, of the financial as well as health benefits of a smoke free country.

Tomatometer rating: 70%. Box office takings: US$32m

There are many more that could be added to the list. The most recent to be considered is The Dallas Buyer’s Club (2014), the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Texan who hustled the system to get medication to AIDS patients in the 1980s after he himself was diagnosed. Our next move is to build up a list that covers psychiatry in the movies – and there will certainly be some rich material here.

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