New York, NY — In 2004, Morgan Spurlock made reforming the fast food industry his personal mission. He decided to challenge the theory that eating fast food is safe by eating only McDonald’s for thirty days, three meals a day. The resulting documentary – Supersize Me – showed the physical toll that all those burgers quickly take on the body and ignited a national debate on the use and marketing of processed foods.

In the years that followed, we saw exposes of the industry, like Fast Food NationLaws designed to ban bad eating behavior. And, practical guides by Michael Pollan and others on how to navigate the whole mess.

Several signs are pointing toward healthcare being the next institution to spark a national dialog about change. Sure, healthcare reform is a factor, but it’s the interest of artists and advocates creating a tipping point.

Our Morgan Spurlock just might be Matthew Heineman:

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Heineman and his collaborators created a movie called Escape Fire, the fight to rescue America’s healthcare. It showed at Sundance and ran on CNN, but it also screened at 60 medical schools and 152 veterans hospitals.

To develop Escape Fire, the creators followed the individual experiences of people getting and giving care and they talked to leaders fighting to transform healthcare at the highest levels of medicine, industry, government, and even the US military.

What they found will sound familiar:

  • We’ve been more effective at creating a disease management system than a true health care system.
  • The incentives are all wrong. We will pay for a diabetic to get her foot amputated when she’s 60, but we don’t pay for nutritional counseling when she’s 30. Employers pay more and more for healthcare, but have little involvement in the actual care / improvement of their employees’ health and wellness.
  • We need to take more ownership of our own health. (Did you know: almost 75% of healthcare costs are spent on preventable diseases that are the major causes of disability and death in our society)

Heineman believes the shift won’t happen systemically, it will happen community by community; institution by institution. That’s where the name of the movie came from – an escape fire is an example of the individual actions that really change institutions.

It happened at the scene of a deadly wildfire in Montana in 1949. Several firefighters lost their lives but one survived when he came up with the then unheard-of idea of setting another fire in a circle around him as the wildfire approached. When the fire reached him, it jumped over his “escape fire,” saving him from almost certain death. Once a dangerous idea, the escape fire is now standard practice.

Heineman points to some of healthcare’s escape fire creators. There’s Dr. Martin, a young, idealistic primary care doctor who encountered a revolving door of patients that forced her to limit her time to only 5- to 10-minutes per interaction. She was so unsatisfied with practicing that kind of medicine that she quit to create a whole new way of work. You’ll also meet Dr. Dean Ornish, whose groundbreaking work on the food we eat and the things we do has saved the lives of countless thousands of people who have changed their diets and their behaviors — and without costly medications and invasive procedures. As well as one patient of the VA who entirely changed his own outcomes by fighting his addiction to prescribed medicines.

Heineman says the real issue isn’t access – it’s access to what. That’s the opportunity to change healthcare.

While Escape Fire is telling the story on screen, many others are writing about the problem and possible solutions.

Wondering what healthcare’s Fast Food Nation will look like? Time Magazine’s recent cover story can give us a pretty strong clue:

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Having worked in healthcare for three years now, I know that most of the people here are very much like Dr. Martin and Dr. Ornish. They want to do better, to fight for patients, to truly improve health. There has never been a better time to effect that change individually and collectively. It starts with radically rethinking how we connect with people to help them become powerful advocates for their own health. You know we can do it.

Posted by: Leigh Householder

About the Author:

As Managing Director of Innovation for Syneos Health Communications, Leigh is responsible for shaping the company’s perspective on the next era of healthcare marketing. Through thought leadership, strategic innovation workshops and new products and capabilities, Leigh focuses on identifying marketing approaches that will fuel that new era and generate significant growth for clients. Leigh has worked with Fortune 1000 companies to craft their digital, mobile, social and CRM strategies for over 17 years. She’s worked for category-leading agencies in retail, public affairs, B2B technology, and higher education. Prior to moving to Syneos Health Communications, she had several leadership roles at one of our agencies, GSW. There, she founded an innovation practice fueled by the zeitgeist and spearheaded digital and innovation thinking across the business. Leigh has taken a special interest in complex healthcare products that can change lives in meaningful ways. She was recently a strategic lead on the 3rd largest launch in pharmaceutical history: Tecfidera. Before that she had keys roles with Eli Lilly Oncology, Abbott Nutrition, Amgen Cardiovascular, and Eli Lilly Diabetes. A critical part of Leigh’s work is trends and new ideas. Every year, she convenes a group of trend watchers from across our global network to identify the shifts most critical to healthcare marketers. Leigh is a sought-after writer and speaker. Recognized as one of the most inspiring people in the pharmaceutical industry by PharmaVoice, Leigh also was recognized as a Rising Star by the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) for her overt passion, industry thought leadership and significant contributions in new business, strategy and mentoring.