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Stanford University School of Medicine

Film festival connects health care, social justice

I came away from this year's United Nations Film Festival (UNAFF) reflecting on the link between health care and social justice.

Stanford's Medicine and the Muse and the Program in Bioethics and Film partnered with the documentary film festival to co-sponsor a day of medically themed film screenings -- united by the theme "Compass for a Better World" -- at the School of Medicine. Many of the films highlighted the struggles and injustices faced by often overlooked communities across the United States.

I sat in on "Clínica de Migrantes: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," a film that focuses on Puentes de Salud (Bridges of Health), a health clinic providing care to undocumented immigrants in Philadelphia. Because undocumented immigrants cannot obtain health insurance, most do not receive regular medical treatment. The few existing immigrant health clinics face not only a constant struggle for resources, but also are striving to care for patients whose lives are rocked by the act of migration and the challenge of forging a new life for their families.

One of the most poignant storylines follows a woman with cancer who was discharged from the hospital because she was ineligible to continue treatment without insurance. She had come to the U.S. alone by taking a bus and walking. The Puentes team makes the decision to purchase plane tickets for her to return to Honduras to be with her family. After a final meal together, clinic director Steven Larson, MD, and a medical student volunteer drive her to the airport; the woman is reluctant to leave her new, good friends. The medical student, having grown close to the woman, cries as she is wheeled away. Later, the student calls the Puentes team, offering thanks: "You have taught me what kind of doctor I want to be."

Following the screenings, a panel discussion on health and ethics featured Stanford gastroenterologist Gabriel Garcia, MD, PhD, and neuropsychiatrist Sepideh Bajestan, MD, PhD, as well as two of the individuals featured in a film and several of the filmmakers. The speakers agreed that the environment has a significant effect on health. "You get your health not from your health-care system, but where you live, play, work, and love," said Garcia. The act of caring doesn't end at the hospital.

After watching these films, it becomes clear that it is impossible to provide health care without dealing with political, economic, and social inequalities. As one of the doctors at Puentes emphasized, the organization cares for the "new face of America." Care is not just providing an extra hospital bed, the doctor pointed out -- care is reaching out and promising, "We will not abandon you."

Previously: Emmy nod for film about Stanford brain tumor research - and the little boy who made it possible, How your neighborhood can affect your health: A real-life experiment from Sweden, and "Just an immigrant kid" who now leads the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Photo by dima_goroziya

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