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Medicine and Movies


It’s snowing outside, and the logs are burning in the fireplace. It’s a February blizzard. By the time you read this I’ll be thawed. I guess you know I’m not in San Diego. Despite Rochester’s well-earned reputation as the sizzling hot spot of the Minnesota-Iowa border, it seems like a cool night to think about renting some movies. But what are the best movies for a hospitalist? What are the absolute clunkers? Here are some suggestions.

“The Hospital” (1971)

This is my number one choice, no doubt about it. If you trained in New York City, it’s a bonus. This is a strange, dark comedy starring George C. Scott. His most famous, Oscar-winning role was in “Patton,” but I loved him in this medically titled-but-distinctly-different-from-“Dr. Strangelove” movie. In this flick, he plays the suicidal, alcoholic chief of internal medicine in a dysfunctional, deteriorating New York teaching hospital. On the edge of self-destruction, he meets the alluring yet bizarre Diana Rigg.

If you are at least as old as me—over 25, that is—you might remember her as Mrs. Emma Peel of the Avengers, the proto-feminist kickboxing genius in a leather body suit. Together, they try to solve a mystery involving unexpected deaths, in an atmosphere of abuse, lack of professionalism, and general mayhem. The Joint Commission would have a field day in this facility. See this movie with your hospital’s safety officer!

Who says competition in the medical world isn’t good? “Mother, Jugs & Speed” is just a modified version of pay for performance; too bad that, in this case, the performances are terrible!

“No Way Out” (1950)

Next on my list is a movie that glorifies the doctor and his oath but still explores the politics of hospitals and race relations. This is another of my absolute favorite medical movies. It is Sidney Poitier’s first film. He plays the intern taking care of Richard Widmark and his brother—both of whom are rabid racists. When the brother dies following a lumbar puncture, a chain of events is set off that plunges the city into a race riot. Can Dr. Brooks clear his name by getting an autopsy before Ray Biddle hunts him down? This is a great movie to watch with a group of students—a conversation starter.

“Panic in the Streets” (1950)

Yup, it’s 1950 and Richard Widmark again. This time, he’s a public health officer who uncovers a case of plague in a very noir film-noir New Orleans. He must catch a killer who has been exposed to plague. The villain turns out to be Walter “Jack” Palance in his first movie. Watch Dr. Clint Reed chase Blackie through some scenes of New Orleans you won’t forget. Then play poker.

“Mother, Jugs & Speed” (1976)

Oh my, what is this doing on my list? I must be slipping. Bill Cosby and Raquel Welch star (guess which one is Jugs). Any movie with Dick Butkus and Larry Hagman in it can’t be all bad, can it? Yes, it can. Crazed ambulance drivers tear up the streets of L.A. when a new law decrees that whoever gets to the accident first gets the transport. Who says competition in the medical world isn’t good? This is just a modified version of pay for performance; too bad that, in this case (again), the performances are terrible!

“Fantastic Voyage” (1966)

I can’t stop thinking about Raquel Welch. In this movie she is a decade younger, an earnest young medical researcher who gets attacked by leukocytes. Watching her ultra-tight dive suit get covered in giant plastic antibodies almost made me want to go into immunology. The crew gets shrunk and injected into a diplomat’s body to dissolve a clot in his brain. Too bad they didn’t have tissue plasminogen activator (TPA). “The Simpsons” did a cover on this one that’s worth checking out.

The Island of Lost Souls (1933)

“The Island of Lost Souls” (1933)

“The Island of Lost Souls” (1933)

Watch this one with your favorite geneticist. In remakes, it’s called “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” the name of the book this movie was adapted from. Charles Laughton—the quintessential Quasimodo—creates beings that are half man/half beast, with the help of Bela Lugosi (sans pointy teeth and bats) and “the panther woman.” Her name is Lola. I think Dr. Moreau may have met her in a club down in old Soho. I guess you’ll have to drink champagne that tastes just like Coca-Cola with this one. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

“Le Roi de Coeur” (King of Hearts) (1966)

Many people consider this their favorite movie. Most of them went to college on the East Coast in the early 1980s and didn’t go home alone the night they saw this one. It involves some kind of operant conditioning. I just saw this movie again last week for the first time in 25 years, and I wasn’t disappointed. A Scottish ornithologist is taken for a bomb expert, and the denizens of a psychiatric hospital take over a small French town. It’s a love story and an anti-war movie. Watch this one with someone you love—or want to.

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920)

My sister Roberta told me about this one, so I knew it would be freaky. The first horror movie ever made, it’s a silent film. One of my favorite things about this film is its expressionist sets. It’s a must see for film buffs, but not one to watch with the kids. If you want to see another of my sister’s horror picks, try “Dead Ringers” (1988)—it’s about twin homicidal gynecologists. Not for the faint of heart.

“Flatliners” (1990)

Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts—yeah, that sounds like my medical school class. Actually, my class was more John Cleese, Marty Feldman, and Ruth Buzzi. In this film, medical students put themselves into cardiac arrest and then resuscitate one another at the last minute.

“M*A*S*H” (1970)

Still one of my favorites, and I loved the book even more. Anti-war, anti-bureaucracy, hilarious. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould are excellent as Hawkeye and Trapper John, and Sally Kellerman is the best Hot Lips. This is somewhat different from the series and is worth watching.

There are so many other movies I have enjoyed. There are Gregory Peck in “Captain Newman, MD” and Robin Williams in “Awakenings.” I even like Patrick Swayze in “City of Joy.” Also worth mentioning: “And the Band Played On,” “Coma,” “The Cider House Rules,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and “The Elephant Man.”

There are dozens more; some are great depictions of medicine, and some are total trash. Got a favorite I didn’t list? Send the name and a paragraph about why you like it to me at

OK, I need to get out more. TH

Dr. Newman is the physician editor of The Hospitalist. He’s also consultant, Hospital Internal Medicine, and assistant professor of internal medicine and medical history, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn.

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