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White coats on silver screens: The best movies about physicians

Learn how physician-focused movies such as M*A*S*H and Awakenings portray the profession and read about the life lessons they offer DOs.


At the 2015 Oscars, host Neil Patrick Harris introduced presenter Jason Bateman as “easily the most well-adjusted former child star in the room.”

Harris was referencing his own past role of Doogie Howser, MD, the 16-year-old physician he played on TV in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Doogie Howser, MD, represents the evolution of the portrayal of physicians in popular culture over the years. In the first half of the 20th century, physicians in movies were typically authority figures who played bit parts in movies, says film critic Rhett Bartlett.

“Physicians tended to be peripheral secondary characters who only had a scene or two,” according to Bartlett. “But as you move further through the century, more doctors become central characters in films.”

In the ’60s, movies such as Doctor Dolittle and Carry On Doctor portrayed physicians in a light-hearted manner, Bartlett notes. In the ’70s, films such as Coma and The Abominable Dr. Phibes viewed medicine through the lens of horror. And in the ’80s and ’90s, more films made efforts to realistically show what physicians’ work and home lives are like, as evidenced by The Doctor and Awakenings. Although the premise of a 16-year-old physician is decidedly unrealistic, Doogie Howser, MD, still falls with this trend in some respects: the show portrays Dr. Howser’s struggles at work and at home.

After speaking with Bartlett and an assortment of DO film buffs, The DO compiled this list of the best movies about doctors. Did we leave out one of your favorites? Let us know in the comments.

Patch Adams (1998)

Based on a true story, Patch Adams follows the career of Hunter Adams (played by Robin Williams), a think-outside-the-box physician who tries to heal his patients with megadoses of laughter and empathy.

The movie shows physicians the importance of maintaining a sense of humor, says Charles J. Sophy, DO, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, California, who works with celebrities.

Patch really helped me see that being a doctor wasn’t all darkness and dreariness,” he says. “It showed that there is happiness to find, and there are colleagues to connect with. The movie helped me want to continue on the medical path, because I was able to say to myself, ‘There are other people in this, and there is joy in this, too.’ ”

M*A*S*H (1970)

Directed by Robert Altman, this comedy chronicles the shenanigans of a group of rebellious physicians and staff in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. After long, harrowing surgery shifts, physicians Hawkeye Pierce, played by Donald Sutherland, and Trapper John McIntyre, played by Elliott Gould, blow off steam with bottomless martinis and inappropriate practical jokes.

M*A*S*H showed physicians that they didn’t have to fit into the buttoned-up Marcus Welby, MD, mold to be good clinicians, notes Ivan Raimi, DO, an emergency physician and Hollywood screenwriter.

“I never felt like I fit the standard mold of what a doctor should be,” says Dr. Raimi, who co-wrote Spider-Man 3 and Army of Darkness and has also written for the TV show Ash vs Evil Dead. “M*A*S*H showed me that I could be different. It allowed physicians some leeway.”

Analyze This (1999)

This lighthearted comedy about a neurotic New York psychiatrist who begins treating a Mafia kingpin proffers real lessons about cultivating an atmosphere of trust with your patients, Dr. Sophy says.

Billy Crystal plays Dr. Ben Sobel, who treats Robert DeNiro as Paul Viti, a godfather suffering from panic attacks and guilt over his father’s assassination. Initially terrified by Viti, Dr. Sobel becomes fascinated with his patient’s lifestyle, then overwhelmed when caring for him starts to become a full-time endeavor. Along the way, Dr. Sobel becomes the only person that Viti really trusts, Dr. Sophy notes.

“That goes to show you that as a physician, the empathetic connection comes across if it is built in from the very beginning,” he says. “And oftentimes, that’s what makes patients get better. The ability to trust their physician.”

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

While in Uganda on a medical mission, Scottish physician Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvoy, crosses the path of the country’s brutal dictator Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker. Taken with Dr. Garrigan, Amin chooses him to be his personal physician. Dr. Garrigan then attempts to help others and save himself while living in the shadow of a tyrant.

The Last King of Scotland shows physicians that in order to properly treat patients, physicians occasionally have to align themselves with someone who doesn’t agree with their plan, Dr. Sophy says. For instance, when treating a child, physicians have to see the parent’s perspective, even when the physician and parent disagree.

“You align yourself with people who don’t necessarily agree with you,” he says. “You not only learn something from that, but you also are oftentimes able to show them what they aren’t able to see.”

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

In director Woody Allen’s “dramedy,” Martin Landau plays Dr. Judah Rosenthal, an ophthalmologist revered in his community. But behind his public-facing altruism, Dr. Rosenthal is having an affair and engaging in shady financial deals. Spoiler alert: When his mistress threatens to expose him, Dr. Rosenthal murders her. He later reconciles his homicidal behavior in his own mind.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is an interesting study of compartmentalization, which is what doctors do a lot,” Dr. Raimi says, noting that the movie dramatizes the way physicians must separate themselves from the trauma they witness on the job. “This ophthalmologist killed a woman and then just manages one day to go, ‘You know what, I’m ok with that.’ It’s a comedy that addresses morality without pushing it in your face.”

Awakenings (1990)

Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a physician newly tasked with helping catatonic patients at a Bronx hospital, in this film based on a true story. Dr. Sayer makes great efforts to help his patients and gives Leonard Lowe, a patient played by Robert DeNiro, a medication typically used for other purposes. When the medicine helps Lowe, Dr. Sayer decides to also give it to his other patients.

Awakenings is an outstanding example of a doctor pushing the boundaries of his passion for his work to improve the lives of his patients,” wrote Bartlett.

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