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As a clinician, you know that reading is critical to boost your knowledge. But you also know that it’s nice—and important—to give those neurons a break from time to time. Of course, there are times when you want your entertainment to have nothing to do with medicine. But for those times when you don’t mind a bit of work mixed in with play, here is our list of the 14 best movies for doctors and other clinicians to watch. As a disclaimer, we’re healthcare professionals, not movie critics.
Based on the real-life experience of Dr Oliver Sacks, as recounted in his memoir of the same title, this film tells the story of patients afflicted by the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of the early 20th century. Stuck in a catatonic state for decades, the patients are awakened when the fictional Dr Malcolm Sayer, played by Robin Williams, uses the then novel drug L-DOPA with truly remarkable results. The power of science, perseverance, and the human spirit are all apparent in this moving interpretation of actual events.
Will Smith stars as Dr Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born physician and forensic pathologist, who discovered the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a deceased American football player, while working at the coroner’s office in Alleghany County, Pennsylvania. Based on actual events, the film portrays the National Football League’s initial attempts to dismiss the findings and the eventual acceptance of the research into the mainstream. Another great reminder of the importance that science, curiosity, and ethics play in medicine.
Robin Williams makes a second appearance on this list in a film based on the real-life story of Dr Hunter “Patch” Adams, who, after overcoming depression, dedicates his career to promoting humor and compassion in medicine. While neither critics nor the actual Patch Adams were particularly enamored with the film, it does serve as a great reminder that a little bedside manner can go a long way.
Based on the classic novel by Ken Kesey, this unforgettable film captures the inner workings of a 1960s Oregon mental hospital. Among many other things, it serves as a reminder of the progress that has been made in the arena of mental health. It also serves as a great showcase for the acting brilliance of a younger Jack Nicholson. Finally, watching this film will allow you to understand the Nurse Ratched references that’ll undoubtedly come up in your life as a clinician.
Based on true events, this made-for-television drama tells the story of pioneering cardiac surgeon Alfred Blalock—think Tetralogy of Fallot—and his unlikely assistant Vivien Thomas, an African-American without formal training but with a sharp intellect and the dexterity to match. Along the way, some of the unfortunate racial realities of mid-20th-century America are laid bare, making this tale of medical ingenuity somewhat bittersweet.
This one might hit a little too close to home. In the fictional film, a novel virus originating from bats creates a worldwide pandemic. The politics of the response, the race for a vaccine, and the willful spread of conspiracy theories round out the plot, which is eerily similar to simply watching the news about the non-fictional pandemic that we know all too well.
Based loosely on Dr Edward Rosenbaum’s 1988 biography, this film tells the story of Dr Jack McKee, a highly successful and self-absorbed surgeon whose life is upended by his own cancer diagnosis. After experiencing the healthcare system from the perspective of a patient, Dr McKee is forced to rethink his own interactions with those around him.
In another made-for-television drama—this one based on a play of the same name—Emma Thompson is Vivian Bearing, a vivacious professor and literary scholar who is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in the prime of her life. The witty dialogue takes the edge off an otherwise intensely thought-provoking film.
The list had to include one thriller and The Fugitive fills that role amazingly well. Harrison Ford plays Dr Richard Kimble, a vascular surgeon who is framed for the murder of his wife and sentenced to death. Throw in an escape, a manhunt, and a pharmaceutical company, and it’s on! While you might not get some sort of deep, take-home message, you’ll definitely get some critically acclaimed entertainment.
Much like The Fugitive, this film depicts a scenario that no clinician should have to endure. Based on a novel of the same name, this work of historical fiction revolves around a Scottish doctor who is hand selected by the 1970s Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to be his personal physician. After witnessing numerous atrocities at the hands of the ruthless despot, the physician is forced to make some gut wrenching decisions.
Taking place during the early days of the HIV epidemic and based on a non-fiction book of the same name (by an author who ultimately succumbed to AIDS), this drama highlights the efforts of an American epidemiologist to identify the cause of the disease. Lack of funding, politics, and personal agendas hamper progress, but persistence reigns supreme in yet another shout out to the value of great science.
Also about the early days of the HIV epidemic, this film’s all-star cast including Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington portrays the story of an attorney who is dismissed from his law firm after being suspected of having AIDS. Thanks to his masterful performance, Hanks took home the Academy Award for Best Actor (and Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia won the award for Best Original Song). Beware that you may shed a tear or two.
Director Michael Moore is not one to shy away from controversy and in this documentary he tackles the often perplexing American healthcare system. Released before the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, the film provides a look at the harsh realities that motivated the passage of the law. Of course, you may find yourself asking just how much has actually changed since then.
Given that a lot of the movies for doctors on this list are a little heavy, we had to end with a romantic comedy. In this lighthearted film, Michael J. Fox plays Dr Benjamin Stone, a newly minted surgeon on his way to practice in Beverly Hills. Unforeseen circumstances land him in rural South Carolina, where the romantic part of the story kicks in. It’s not a Disney movie, but it could be.