5 essential films for clinicians

By Alistair Gardiner
Published August 20, 2021

Key Takeaways

With the Delta variant filling ICUs to capacity, our hopes for a summer of freedom are all but dashed. But medical movie connoisseurs can rejoice—there are plenty of entertaining, medically themed flicks you can stream as we figure out where COVID-19 takes us next.

From gripping documentaries to straight-up Hollywood eye candy, here are five movies to keep medical geeks busy for a while.

The English Surgeon (2007)

Directed by Geoffrey Smith, The English Surgeon (not to be confused with The English Patient) is a documentary that examines the life of Dr. Henry Marsh, a British brain surgeon who spent years helping desperate patients in Ukraine’s run-down healthcare system. Marsh was inspired to dedicate his life to this pursuit, in partnership with Ukrainian surgeon Dr. Igor Kurilets, after encountering the appalling state of one of the country’s hospitals while visiting to give a lecture in 1992. 

Marsh subsequently donated his time, expertise, and as much equipment as possible to the people of the former Soviet satellite nation, exhibiting a level of humanity and compassion that makes this a truly enthralling documentary. This isn’t just a simple or perfunctory portrait of two physicians trying to bring a nation’s care system into the 21st century; the film allows you to enter the minds of the surgeons at its center, painting three-dimensional pictures of their humanity as they cobble together solutions to medical problems that shouldn’t exist in the modern era. 

When asked to compile a list of the best films about medicine, three professors of the Stanford Medicine Program picked The English Surgeon as one of their top 10, with one saying “It depicts interesting dilemmas that arise when a doctor has to make choices about providing medical care when there’s not enough resources, and it explores what [a physician’s] responsibility is to patients.”

Contagion (2011)

After returning from a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff is feeling rundown. She dismisses her malady as jet lag. Two days later, Emhoff is dead. 

This may sound like a recent news story, but it’s actually the opening of Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion. After the world was stopped in its tracks by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, many of those who found themselves sheltering at home discovered Soderbergh’s film on Netflix and found that it was strangely premonitory. Contagion depicts not just the spread of a virus through respiratory droplets, but the loss of social order and the race to create a vaccine that has come to characterize modern life. Part of the film was even shot at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia.

According to Paul Offit, MD, (a real-life vaccine co-inventor), much of the film is based on science that holds water. “Typically when movies take on science, they tend to sacrifice the science in favor of drama. That wasn't true here,” Offit wrote in a review.

From the origins of the virus, to the way it spreads via fomites, to the difficulty in containing its spread and the challenges of creating vaccines, many of the film’s details are surprisingly accurate to real-world scenarios, according to Offit. He even points out that the movie could serve as “a commercial for hand sanitizer.”

For some, this might feel like the worst time for a movie like this; but for others, watching a film that so aptly depicts a situation that’s so reminiscent of everyday life can provide comfort, catharsis, and communion. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017)

The basis for this film is a story that anyone who works in medicine should know. Henrietta Lacks was a Black American woman whose biopsied cancer cells were the source of the HeLa cell line, which was the first immortalized human cell line. Without her knowledge or consent. This discovery paved the way for innumerable medical breakthroughs and continues to be a source of invaluable research to this day.  

This film, however, tells a different story: that of journalist Rebecca Skloot and her efforts to track down Lacks’ family. In doing so, the movie focuses on the ethical questions raised by Lacks’ story—the fact her cells were harvested and used in laboratory settings without her consent, the institutional racism that Lacks experienced and that still lingers in the US healthcare system today, and more.

While the film received somewhat mixed reviews, critics praised Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal of Lacks’ daughter Deborah, with The Atlantic calling it “genuine brilliance.” Though the film isn’t narratively perfect, it will leave you pondering the ethics involved for days on end.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

The film that delivered Oscars to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto is arguably most interesting for its depiction of “buyers clubs” and its representation of a healthcare system that forces patients to cross borders and break laws to get the treatment they need. Based on true events, the film tells the tale of Ronald Woodroof, a Texan who is diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. Refusing to give up so easily, Woodroof ends up befriending a cohort of other AIDS patients and ultimately smuggling unapproved drugs into the United States, helping to extend the lives of many who the medical establishment ignored. 

According to an article published in Slate, many of the details in the film boast a high degree of accuracy—from the laws and red tape surrounding the medication AZT, to the ins and outs of the buyers club, real-life versions of which existed across the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

Still Alice (2015)

While The Father got a lot of attention this year for its depiction of a man experiencing the later stages of dementia, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s 2015 movie Still Alice got there first. The film stars Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a linguistics professor diagnosed with Alzheimer disease—and it was widely praised for the realism that both Moore and the filmmakers imbued in the character’s battle with the disease. 

In an article published by The Guardian in 2015, several patients with Alzheimer corroborated comments on the film’s accuracy.

“It captured how dementia crept up on me, how it knocked my self-esteem and brought doubts into my mind before I even knew what I was dealing with. It captured how insidious the disease is, how it can subtly eat away at you. It captured how I tried to fight it, how I found coping strategies, how I tried to hide it. But her decline happens so quickly – I found that very difficult to come to terms with,” one of these patients commented.

For those interested in learning more about misconceptions surrounding the disease, and the visceral impact that it can have on patients, Still Alice is a tough but vital film that’s well worth watching.

Trivia: Which doctor was the inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes? Click here to take the quiz.

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