|Protesters in San Francisco. Photo by Rdmsf01. Via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.|
“Where do you train your nurses, Mrs. Christie, Dachau?”
— Dr. Herbert Bock, The Hospital
The Hospital (1971) is a devastating satire about American medicine in the second half of the twentieth century. We see the functioning of an inner-city teaching hospital through the eyes of Dr. Herbert Bock (played by George C. Scott), chief of the department of internal medicine.
Bock was once a brilliant researcher who presented a paper that “revolutionized the field of immunology. I’m in all the textbooks.” He was, he says, a “boy genius” and was also a gifted clinician. Now he is divorced, depressed, alcoholic, and suicidal, and the father of a substance-abusing daughter with an arrest record.
A second storyline involves an inpatient who is a psychotic physician and religious missionary. He convincingly fakes a coma during the day, but at night puts on a white coat and places selected hospital staff members in life-threatening situations. This element of fantasy moves the story along but is not really needed to show how the hospital is harmful to people’s health.
The hospital is overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded. There is little or no communication between those caring for the same patient. Lab results get lost, microscopes are stolen, and patients die from neglect in the emergency room. For example, Dr Bock states: “…a man came into this hospital in perfectly good health, and in the space of one week, we chopped out one kidney [as the result of an unneeded kidney biopsy that led to massive bleeding], damaged the other kidney [because of an allergic reaction to an intravenous injection], reduced him to coma [‘Some nurse goofed on his last treatment…His blood pressure plunged’], and damn near killed him.” He tells his chief resident that he had been contemplating suicide, but has realized he is “a necessary person” and that his “life is meaningful. And now you [the chief resident] come to me with this gothic horror story in which the entire machinery of medicine has apparently conspired to destroy one lousy patient. How am I to sustain my feelings of meaningfulness in the face of this?”
He is later saved from a suicide attempt by the daughter of the patient described above. She says she loves Bock and wants him to go away with her before his job at the hospital destroys him. Meanwhile, a demonstration organized by those who live near the hospital vilify it as an uncaring destroyer of their neighborhood. This is because the hospital has bought some condemned buildings that it plans to level to build an addiction treatment center. The protest erupts into a riot and Bock decides to stay. “The hospital is coming apart. I can’t walk out on it. Someone’s got to be responsible.”
Dans1 calls this “a film that was good in its time, and has gotten better with age…an excellent way to teach medical history and sociology.” Flores2 lists it as number two on his top-ten list of doctor movies (with Redbeard as number one).
- Peter Dans. Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Aah. Bloomington Il: Medi-Ed Press, 2000.
- Glenn Flores. “Doctors in the movies,” Arch Dis Child, 89, 1084-1088, 2005.
HOWARD FISCHER, M.D. was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan. He worked for thirty years at an inner-city teaching hospital.