Mass Media Representation of Healthcare Environments: An Academic Analysis of “Patch Adams” and “Awakenings”

This is an academic paper I wrote in the Summer of 2015 for a Sociology of Health and Illness class. I recently came across it and I saw some good points. I would like to revisit it, sometime in the future and continue my research.

Meghan Bayer
University of Pittsburgh
Sociology of Health and Illness
Summer 2015 Term Paper


In today’s world, mass media has a very powerful effect on humans. Too many people start to believe everything they hear whether there is any truth in the portrayal or not.  Also, many forms of mass media are “twisted” to help further prove a point, whether the facts are accurate or not. Over the years, Hollywood has given us some very precise depictions of the workers in the health care setting and some not so accurate. Two such films provide some example of both representation and misrepresentation of employees and relationships in the health care system.

Patch Adams is the light-hearted film featuring Robin Williams as Hunter “Patch” Adams. A patient at a mental institution after attempting to commit suicide, Patch applies to medical school where his strong interpersonal communication skills and genuine care for the patients threaten to be corrupted by the iron-fisted influence of the dean of the medical school. While his methods for cheering up the patients are considered illegal, they did not mind as they were in an overall better mood and needed to take less pain medication.

Based on Oliver Sacks’ memoir, Awakenings is another movie featuring Robin Williams, but this time, the environment is much more severe. When an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica sweeps across the United States from 1917-1928, many people quickly died. For those that survived, they were left profoundly disabled by the infection. The disease left them in a catatonic state, and for many years, doctors and scientists were unsure of how to retrain the brain to communicate with its environment. In 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer administered a new type of drug known as L-Dopa, which allowed these patients to come out of their catatonic states. The end of the film shows how many of these patients are then forced to live with new lives, after decades of lives vanished before their eyes.

On Patch Adams’ first day of medical school, the Dean gives the following speech: “Doctors are powerful. Do no harm, because you can do harm. A patient will come to you at his moment of greatest dread, hand you a knife, and say ‘Doctor, cut me open.’ Why? Because he trusts you.” (Patch Adams, 1998) This quote reflects the medical dominance enjoyed by many physicians. When the movie was filmed in the last 1990s, governmental control of health care was much less than it is today. Despite the change in the authorities of health care, many patients still trust doctors all the same. Doctors tend to thrive on that confidence; as seen in both films, the attending physicians act like they are superior to everyone else. Mainly the power gets to their heads. While this is not the case for every medical practitioner, many physicians possess the qualities and personalities that would make this an accurate generalization.

Another important aspect of working in a health care environment is the importance of emotional detachment. At the start of their medical education, most are aspiring physicians because they want to make a difference in someone’s life. However, by the end of residency, many doctors have lost touch with their interpersonal communication skills. This is because “medical culture values and rewards ‘strength’ and equates emotional involvement with weakness.” (Weitz, 2013) The emotional detachment shown in both Patch Adams and Awakenings was overly dramatic. In Patch Adams, it would never be permitted for a physician to interact with patients in such a laid back manner. He also spent a lot of time creating elaborate plans to entertain the patients. Adams always asked the patient’s name and how they were doing; a violation of the unwritten medical codes and values. Likewise, Dr. Sayer became so emotionally attached to the patients he was trying to treat, that he essentially could not function as an ordinary person. He was consumed with an attempt to cure these patients to return them to a normal life. When a patient experienced something good, it was a win for him, and when they suffered defeat, it was a loss for him. Dr. Sayer became one with his patients, and it ultimately caused him to lose his objectivity.

Ethnicity, race, gender, age, and class all influence the medical field. For physicians, in particular, male non-Hispanic whites from middle and upper classes are most likely to graduate with their medical degree. (Weitz, 2013) Any deviation from this “ideal student” would make obtaining a degree much more challenging. In Patch’s medical school class, there were eight girls out of 160. Therefore, those women had to perform to a much higher level to be considered just as good as one of the men. Being a non-traditional, 30-some-year-old student, Patch also faced significant adversity on his road to obtaining a medical degree. In medicine, if you do not fit a particular group of criteria, you are considered much less likely to succeed. Although this is quite unfair, it is the harsh reality.

As time wears on, the doctor-patient relationship is rapidly changing. Rather than the physician making all of the decisions (except in situations in which the patient may be incapacitated), doctors and patients are now working as a team to develop the best treatment plans. “Today’s patient role is more often chronic versus acute; is based on the risk of disease rather than existing illness; and requires more active engagement by the patient in monitoring, self-educating, and self-treating over time rather than just seeking treatment from a provider on a one-time basis.” (Weitz, 2013) As illnesses shift from primarily acute illnesses to more chronic problems, this is becoming more and more evident. Because his patients are incapacitated by encephalitis lethargica, Dr. Sayer is forced to make the decisions regarding treatment, whereas a person with chronic lung disease may help to develop a treatment plan with their physician.

The media likes to dramatize medical situations for entertainment purposes, but in the process, many medical aspects are misrepresented. When the media is attempting to make a point to support their argument or agenda, the reality may also be misconstrued. On the other hand, Hollywood has given us some excellent and accurate portrayals of the health care setting. While overdramatizing and misrepresenting the medical environment is not ideal, it is not unusual to see.

Marshall, P. (Director), Parkes, W. F., & Lasker, L. (Producers), & Zaillian, S. (Screenwriter).  (1990). Awakenings [Motion picture on DVD]. United States of America: Columbia  Pictures.
Shadyac, T. P. (Director), Mylander, M. (Writer), & Oedekerk, S. (Screenwriter). (1998). Patch  Adams [Motion picture on DVD]. United States of America: Universal Pictures.
Weitz, Rose. The Sociology of Health, Illness and Health Care. 6th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning,  2013. N. pag. Print.

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