Emergency Boom: Does the medical-industrial complex want us to stay sick?
Emergency Boom: Does the medical-industrial complex want us to stay sick?

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Are you depressed? Diabetic? Overweight? Incontinent? Dysfunctional in the erectile department? Pity the possibly ill captives of live TV; by the time their show’s over, these freshly minted hypochondriacs will have a list of dozens of drugs to bring to their doctors. According to Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, only New Zealand and our fair country allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise. And here, we in turn end up spending $300 billion on medications annually. U.S.A.!

Susan Fromke and Matthew Heineman’s documentary stresses that ours is not a health-care system but a “disease-management system” that doesn’t want you to die, but doesn’t necessarily want you to get well, either—that would be bad for business. Aside from drug-company profits, doctors are paid according to how many patients they see, forcing most of them to truncate their time with each patient, which keeps them tossing scripts their way instead of educating the sick about healthier living habits and how they might be able to turn their diseases around. (And research shows that illnesses such as heart disease can be turned around.) Specialists earn twice as much as primary care doctors, resulting in a dearth of those first-stop, whole-health physicians. And if prices for things like groceries grew at the same rate as insurance premiums, a gallon of milk today would cost $48.

Escape Fire (the title comes from a forest-fire survival tactic of igniting flames around you to stop the rush of a larger fire) is full of such sobering statistics, and while it gets a little repetitive, the doc is enlightening if not entirely surprising. Been in an ER lately? When’s the last time a doctor spent more than 10 minutes with you, and didn’t leave you with a handful of prescriptions and a fat bill even after insurance kicks in? The film’s commentators describe a better way to handle health care: prevention. Alternative medical practices are explored, most surprisingly by the military, with one mentally and physically disabled soldier opting to ditch the Target bag full of meds he’s on and try acupuncture, yoga, and meditation. (Spoiler alert: They help.)

And since most Americans seem to be driven not so much by the idea of a healthier lifestyle but by a financial bottom line, the doc gives high praise to Safeway, which found ways to commodify its health-care program and give employees discounts if they’re under a certain BMI, don’t smoke, lose weight, etc. It’s clever, and it works. But even though Escape Fire ends on this hopeful note, it sure makes it sound next to impossible to truly change the way the U.S. handles health care. It’s enough to raise one’s blood pressure, if it weren’t elevated already.