July 2007 | Back to Table of Contents
8 Films Medical Students Should See
By Jon Hallberg, M.D.
I love film. I love the fact that it brings together so many of the other arts—literature, theater, photography, music. The alchemy that results from the careful mixture of those elements creates a kind of visual and aural magic.
When I watch a film, I step out of my known world and into another, getting lost in a different place and time; I’m a voyeur and a traveler and a witness. The scenes and phrases get under my skin, swirl around in my brain, and occupy my thoughts for days—even years. In 90 or 100 or 180 minutes, I can be moved, transported, or maybe even changed a bit forever. Give me a film with well-written dialogue, some clever editing, and great cinematography, and I’m in heaven.
When I started medical school in 1988, I thought I’d lose interest in literature and film; I thought there wouldn’t be time for such “frivolities.” To some extent, I was right about the lack of time; but books and movies became my escape, my sustenance, my connection to the world during those study-filled years. Films such as The Thin Blue Line, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Cinema Paradiso, Lorenzo’s Oil, and Do the Right Thing taught me about justice, ethics, yearning, love, and racism in ways that my conventional medical school courses could not. I’ve since realized that films not only were an escape, they’ve enriched my life as a physician. I suspect they do the same for others.
Curious about what films my colleagues would recommend to future physicians, I posed the following questions to faculty at the University of Minnesota Medical School earlier this year: Which film or films would you recommend to incoming medical students? Which ones do you think best capture what it means to be a physician or that best illuminate the human condition? Which films make you laugh—or cry? Nearly 100 colleagues responded, recommending a total of 148 movies. We are featuring the eight that were mentioned most often. You’ll find the complete list here.
When I conducted a similar survey two years ago about books physicians would recommend, it inspired me to read several of the top vote-getters. I hope this list inspires you to watch a great film. Happy viewing!
Jon Hallberg is an assistant professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota.
1. The Doctor
Based on the book A Taste of My Own Medicine by Ed Rosenbaum and directed by Randa Haines (1991). William Hurt plays an arrogant surgeon who is diagnosed with throat cancer. As he begins to see medicine, hospitals, and doctors from the patient’s perspective and develops a relationship with another cancer patient, he learns that there is more to being a doctor than doing procedures and writing prescriptions.
"It’s still the film that best depicts both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ doctors, in my opinion.”
—Cynthia L. Olson, M.D., department of dermatology, Hennepin County Medical Center
"It touches on numerous themes that we want students to recognize [illness, healing, doctor-patient relationship, being ill as a physician, the importance of life outside of medicine]. We use it frequently in our residency.”
—Joe Blonski, M.D., program director, University of Minnesota/St. Cloud Hospital family medicine residency
"It’s a wonderful reminder that we should always treat patients with the respect they deserve. … While it is routine for a patient to be in our office, it is the most significant thing going on in their life at that moment."
—Jonathan P. Braman, M.D., assistant professor, department of orthopaedics, University of Minnesota
Based on a memoir by Oliver Sacks and directed by Penny Marshall (1990). Robin Williams plays a researcher who uses a then-experimental drug (L-dopa) to “awaken” patients who have been catatonic for decades because of an encephalitis epidemic. The movie focuses on the experience of the first patient, played by Robert de Niro, as he awakens and becomes aware of life in a new time and place, but eventually retreats into his catatonic state.
It portrays the excitement and the heartbreak of clinical research. At this time, there is a crisis among physician investigators, and perhaps the film can portray the usefulness of this career direction.”
—S. Charles Schulz, M.D., professor and chair of psychiatry, University of Minnesota
Based on a Pulitzer-prize-winning play by Margaret Edson and directed by Mike Nichols for HBO (2001). Emma Thompson plays a hardnosed- but-witty English professor who is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. As she is thrust into the unpredictable realm of disease and experimental treatment, she reflects on the illness, treatment, and the people who care for her.
The movie is funny, observant, and totally crushing in its weight. I carry the John Donne sonnet “Death be not proud” around with me on my Palm because of this movie as a reminder that some things are bigger than a bad day in the clinic.”
—Michael Aylward, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, University of Minnesota
4. Patch Adams
Based on the life of Hunter “Patch” Adams and directed by Tom Shadyac (1998). Robin Williams stars as Patch, who after spending time hospitalized in a psychiatric ward decides to become a physician. In medical school, he finds that traditional approaches fail to meet patients’ emotional needs and he launches what he calls the “Gesundheit Institute.”
This movie conveys very well the dehumanizing nature of conventional medical education along with how students can hold on to their humanness and still achieve great things.”
—Tai J. Mendenhall, Ph.D., assistant professor of family medicine and community health, University of Minnesota
5. Something the Lord Made
Directed by Joseph Sargent for HBO (2004). A dramatization of the relationship between white, wealthy heart surgeon Alfred Blalock, played by Alan Rickman, and black, poor carpenter Vivien Thomas, played by Mos Def. Working in Baltimore in the 1940s, the two come together to invent a new technique for performing heart surgery on “blue babies.”
A must-see for medical students, medical educators, and anyone interested in how the socially privileged were gradually forced to acknowledge the contributions of talented people who had been excluded.”
—Barbara Leone, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine and community health, University of Minnesota
6. And the Band Played On
Based on a book by Randy Shilts and directed by Roger Spottiswoode for HBO (1993). This movie about the discovery of the AIDS virus stars Matthew Modine, who plays Don Francis, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control. Battling apathy in the public, government, and health care system, Francis seeks the cause behind a mysterious series of deaths in the gay community in San Francisco starting around 1978.
7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Based on a book by Ken Kesey and directed by Milos Forman (1975). Jack Nicholson plays a small-time criminal who gets himself declared insane so that he can avoid jail time. Once admitted to a state mental hospital, he challenges the authority of Nurse Ratched, who runs the ward with an iron fist.
8. The Painted Veil
Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham and directed by John Curran (2006). Set in China in 1925, the movie tells the story of the marriage of a young London socialite and a bacteriologist living in Shanghai. After the wife is discovered to have had an affair, the couple move to a remote village, where amid poverty and disease they find new purpose