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Hershey Filmmaking Project Adds Depth to Medical Care

Making movies is not what students at the Penn State College of Medicine signed up for. However, it has proven a unique tool in truly understanding patients’ diseases.

Dr. Dan Shapiro chairs the Department of Humanities at the College of Medicine in Hershey. In order to get more in touch with patients, he has his students interview and make documentaries about their own lives with their chronic disease, and those of their family. Said Shapiro of the project’s philosophy, “I wanted our medical students to learn from patients who had serious chronic diseases or ailments. These patients would be teachers and our students would be filmmakers.”

Shapiro’s idea is rooted in his own experience. A former cancer patient himself, he felt that his doctors’ understanding of his disease was flawed.

I had cancer between ages 20 and 25 and felt that the physicians I interacted with had little understanding of what my life was really like with the illness. And, as a result, couldn’t help me prepare for predictable challenges of illness. I learned later that this wasn’t their fault—most of them were trained in a model designed for acute illness rather than chronic. But I also knew—in my bones—that these medical trainees weren’t learning enough from their patients.

Somewhat à la Patch Adams, Shapiro’s approach goes beyond the bare physical aspects of a condition; i.e. not just how cancer affects the body, but the lives of the patients and their families. Through this new understanding, they learn a full appreciation for the full picture of what is happening to the patient.

The students go in-depth with their documentaries, coming up originally with four or five hours of video that get ultimately chopped down to a short 7-10 minute film. Therefore, they really get a chance to connect with the family. The numerous filmmakers have finished their projects with new, profound understandings of what their patients, and their families, are really going through and how to best deal with them.

If you get a moment,  check out the videos made by Dr. Shapiro’s students.


About the Author

Dan McCool

Dan is a senior and has been writing for Onward State since January 2010. Did you miss him? Nah, neither did we. He's returning after a semester abroad in England and will be serving as Arts Editor. Favorite things in life include references to The Big Lebowski.


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