In 1949, a forest fire broke out in Mann Gulch, Montana. A team of 15 smoke jumpers parachuted in to fight the fire, but as the fire quickly spread the team could see they were going to be overtaken.
The team’s foreman, Wag Dodge, had a moment of clarity in the chaotic situation. He took matches from his pocket and lit a fire at his feet. As his fire spread and burned the brush in front of him, he stepped into the newly burnt area.
Wag called for his team to join him in the safe area he had created, but they were too afraid to trust his new, untested solution. The forest fire circled around the area that Wag had burnt, leaving him unharmed. Tragically, the fire overtook the rest of the team, killing 13 of the men.
A new documentary entitled Escape Fire from directors Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke tells a compelling story, relating the state of healthcare in the United States to a forest fire raging out of control. They compare Wag Dodge’s “escape fire” to the obvious solutions to our healthcare problems that people are afraid or unwilling to recognize.
Our healthcare system is more of a disease care system, in which we suppress the symptoms of diseases but rarely identify or treat the underlying causes. This system keeps patients returning to the doctor over and over for the same issue, making the system extremely profitable for the few who control it.
Our doctors are rewarded for productivity; the more patients they see, the more money they make. On top of that, doctors can make ten times as much money for doing a surgical procedure than for an office visit in which they might instead educate their patient about how to change their lifestyle and prevent future disease.
It is indeed a broken system which does not encourage doctors to help their patients live healthier lifestyles. With 75% of healthcare costs being spent to treat chronic issues that are largely preventable, there is enormous potential to save money through education of how to prevent chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
The film does provide hope and suggest solutions. It uses the example of Safeway, a company employing 200,000 people, which offers incentives to its employees to get healthy. Employees receive discounts on their health insurance for not smoking and maintaining low blood pressure, cholesterol, and Body Mass Index. Not only are Safeway’s employees becoming healthier and more productive, but the company is saving money on health insurance.
The film also tells the story of Dr. Dean Cornish, who developed a lifestyle program combining nutrition, exercise and stress management to reduce and prevent heart disease. After 16 years, Dr. Cornish succeeded in getting his program covered by Medicare.
These two avenues – providing discounts on health insurance to people who live healthy lifestyles, and getting health insurance companies to cover preventative care – would go a long way toward reducing healthcare costs and improving the health of our country.
Escape Fire is a must-see film for all Americans. Local show times and screenings are scarce, but you can rent it on iTunes or watch it On Demand through most cable providers.