Review: ‘Escape Fire’ Adds More Fuel to the Healthcare Inferno

Filmmakers argue that simple solutions can save our healthcare system

Published on November 6, 2012by Lauren Weisenfluh

If you’re looking for a hair-tearing documentary about our broken healthcare system, ‘Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare’ will confirm your worst fears, and quite possibly your own experience at the doctor’s office or the hospital. Filmmakers Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke spin together personal stories and myriad statistics to elucidate a costly and complex healthcare inferno of poor outcomes, begging the question: What if our problems could be solved by something right in front of our noses, like low-cost, preventative medicine?

The movie features numerous players in the debate—both patients and practitioners of preventative medicine—to drive the point home. One is Dr. Andrew Weil, director of a physician fellowship program at the University of Arizona. The fellowship focuses on integrative medicine and alternative therapies, skills that are missing from the majority of formal physician training. “We don’t have a healthcare system in this country. We have a disease-management system,” Weil proclaims.

His program attracts physicians from throughout the country—providers dedicated to preventing disease, like Dr. Erin Martin, rather than devoted to treating for profit. Though she starts the fellowship a determined believer, as an overworked primary care doctor Martin quickly becomes frustrated and disillusioned by the reality of the American fee-for-service system. She even contemplates leaving the medical industry–and she does see it as an industry–if she can’t find a clinic that shares her vision.

Unfortunately, as the film points out, disease prevention isn’t lucrative. Treatments are, as most doctors make money by billing per test, procedure and by any number of other components of the care they give. The result? Another of the film’s appalling case studies: A middle-aged woman that in her relatively short life has had a jaw-dropping 27 stents implanted in her heart to open her arteries–and still has lingering problems.

As the film highlights, that’s just the beginning of our healthcare failures. A profitable disease-care system doesn’t want you to die, but it doesn’t want you to get better, either if it means losing money. An over-dependency on prescription drugs treats a patient’s symptoms, but not his root problem. A system of disjointed specialists, rather than synchronized care, makes care unsustainably expensive for patients, insurers and providers. The list goes on and on until you start to have chest pain yourself.

But there is hope. Heineman and Froemke argue that by promoting exercise, good nutrition, and stress-relieving activities such as meditation and yoga, the U.S. healthcare system can cut down on complications of chronic diseases that fee-for-service programs don’t manage well. Even better, the outcomes are a clear boon for patients.

Sgt. Robert Yates, an infantryman returning from service in Afghanistan, is the most persuasive example of this philosophy. On a plane back from Afghanistan and drugged up on nearly a dozen painkillers and anti-anxiety meds, Yates tumbles off his stretcher. Fast-forward to the end of the film, Yates leaves the clinic, sans wheelchair, after receiving acupuncture for pain treatment and meditation to help with his psychological injuries—a strong argument for alternative medicine.

Many organizations have jumped on board the prevention bandwagon, including Safeway Supermarkets. Through activities including group employee runs, healthy cafeteria choices, and an at-work gym, Safeway promotes health to its employees while stabilizing its own healthcare costs. Workers are healthier, saving the company money in insurance premiums in the long term.

Alas, these strategies remain the exception. Even though prevention and health promotion are effective, both in costs and in outcomes, healthcare is a profit-driven business whose lobbyists actively promote their interests in Congress. And while the Affordable Care Act incentivizes providers, insurers and patients to practice preventative medicine through increased funding of health education and guaranteed access to contraceptives, it remains to be seen whether those carrots will be enough to get the industry to embrace low-cost measures. Until then, the healthcare inferno rages on, with a painfully unsustainable future ahead.

‘Escape Fire’ is currently available at special screening events only. The next screening date in Manhattan is Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Church of Advent Hope, 111 E. 87th St. You can find more information on screenings and more at

Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional research by Joshua Brooks.