New Short Documentary Inspires Us to Rethink ‘What Counts’ as Healthcare

Emmy-winning filmmaker Nicole Newnham traces the origins of community health to the passionate leaders of today driving us toward a new kind of care

Boston, Mass. – “The last time I checked my medical textbooks, the specific treatment for malnutrition was food.” So why doesn’t food count as healthcare in this country? This question, raised by Dr. Jack Geiger in 1965, sparked the creation of What Counts, a new short documentary film that follows innovative and courageous healthcare leaders who are reshaping their institutions and partnering in their communities around what matters most to people’s health.    

Today, 80% of the factors that influence our health are shaped not by access to healthcare or the quality of our care, but by life outside the hospital or clinic – factors like housing, food, air quality, employment and education. With some of the highest healthcare costs and lowest social spending in the world – and the racial and economic inequalities that underpin those systems – healthcare institutions are increasingly recognizing disease and illness can no longer be treated by medicine alone.

“The healthcare disparities we see in our community are staggering. One’s zip code determines to a large degree one’s health in this country,” says Dr. Aparna Bole, a pediatrician with University Hospitals Cleveland, in the film. “In one of the communities of Cleveland that we serve, a baby that is born in that community has a life expectancy of 64 years, and a baby born just just eight miles away in a more affluent community has a life expectancy of 88 years.”

Created by Emmy-winning filmmaker Nicole Newnham and award-winning documentary filmmaker Jenni Nelson, with support from the Ford Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, Sundance Institute, DocSociety and Health Leads, What Counts tells the story of health system leaders who are pushing the boundaries of patient care both inside and outside of their institutions.

“As health systems, we should be doing anything we can to produce health, and if that means figuring out a way to support people’s most basic needs, than that’s what we need to do,” says Anna Roth, RN, MS, MPH, CEO of Contra Costa Regional Medical Center and director of Contra Costa Health Services.

“You can stick a needle in the arm, pull it out and say you’ll be alright,” says Leonard, a patient of the Contra Costa Community Connect care team. “But no, they did more than that. They offered me life.” The stories unfold through the travels and narrative of social health innovator Rebecca Onie, the founder and former CEO of Health Leads. Onie asks both current health system leaders and two leaders of the community health center movement, Dr. Helen Barnes and Dr. Jack Geiger, how they’ve challenged healthcare convention and what the future holds.

Healthcare may be dividing our country politically, but this film is further proof that we are unified on health,” said Onie, who recently released a TedTalk highlighting broad support for the essentials that drive health. “These visionaries – from Dr. Geiger and Dr. Barnes in 1965 to the healthcare leaders of today – demonstrate that we can improve health and well-being when we invest in things like safe housing, healthy food and jobs that enable self-sufficiency. And, we continue to see less division and more collective movement toward this vision of health in communities across the U.S.”

“The people in this film have made me hopeful that we can make tremendous strides in health if we broaden our definition of what counts, which means we also have to ask ourselves tough questions about who can achieve health in this country,” said Newnham. “Following the work of civil rights pioneers Dr. Geiger and Dr. Barnes, a growing number of healthcare and community leaders are breaking the mold and working together to achieve health for everyone, sparking a movement to show others that a new approach is both necessary and possible.”

Watch and Share What Counts