Ohio University faculty members Todd Fredricks, left, and Brian Plow, right, are collaborating on a documentary film and a research project that they hope will help physicians understand the needs of military veterans. Photo credit: Ben Siegel/Ohio University.
“I think you really need to try, as much as you can, to put yourself in their shoes. And to be able to think of, if you were them, if the roles were reversed, how would you like to be talked to? How would you like to be helped?”
Those words, spoken by a military veteran asked about how physicians can better serve the health care needs of men and women returning from combat, close the trailer to a forthcoming Ohio University documentary created to educate medical students and doctors about the unique issues experienced by service professionals.
American physicians know that they need to do a better job of helping this population, says Todd Fredricks, himself a physician with Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. Fredricks recently published study findings that confirmed that civilian doctors don’t fully understand the physical and emotional trauma of combat or know what common issues to watch for in these patients. But they’re eager to improve their ability to work with veterans, he found.
After Fredricks, an assistant professor of family medicine, compiled his survey data, he did what any other academic would do next. He presented the findings at professional conferences and published in a medical journal. But he knew that he could only reach a certain audience of colleagues using these methods. He wanted to spread the message more broadly, connecting with medical students and physicians who needed to hear it most.
When the physician met videographer Brian Plow, he knew he’d found his answer. A documentary film—even a short one—could offer a compelling visual tool for telling the veterans’ stories to health care professionals.
“If we teach people to ask the right questions, maybe we will get better care as an outcome,” Fredricks says.
Plow, an associate professor of media arts and studies, is attracted to stories about “smaller, hidden topics that are not getting attention,” he says. There’s a strong opportunity, he notes, to make an impact.
The filmmaker, whose previous work focused on social justice issues, wasn’t familiar with the two communities—medical practitioners and veterans—that he and Fredricks would need to work with for the project, which gave him some pause. But Fredricks is both a physician and a 24-year military professional, having done three tours of the Middle East as a U.S. Army Colonel and medical officer. This helped the duo gain access to documentary subjects.
Fredricks was eager to become an expert on the technical and creative side of the project as well, Plow notes. During the first six months of the partnership, the physician learned how to operate the camera and other equipment. That’s been an important asset, Plow says, as Fredricks is sometimes able to travel to interview documentary subjects when Plow can’t.
Fredricks relished the chance to learn the technical side of filmmaking, he says, as he appreciates its effectiveness as a storytelling format.
“I love the power of film when it’s done beautifully,” Fredricks says. “Having the opportunity to do the film from a medical research position is very intriguing to me.”
Fredricks and Plow agreed early on in the project that the veterans’ interviews would serve a dual purpose: as documentary sources and as subjects of a qualitative research project designed to document and analyze service personnel experiences with combat and health care. As a result, the documentary interviews are conducted in a systematic, consistent manner so the team can collect viable research data as well as compelling stories for the film, Plow explains.
Fredricks and Plow have released a series of promotional images for the documentary film, The Veterans’ Project, that spotlight the veterans interviewed and their stories. Image credit: Courtesy of Todd Fredricks and Brian Plow.
Both the filmmakers and veterans spend time vetting each other before agreeing to participate, Fredricks and Plow note. Veterans might initially be wary of intentions and the chance of being exploited, whereas the creative team needs to verify that the subjects really did serve—there are veteran imposters out there, Fredricks says, a concept called “stolen valor.”
“Once they see that we have a clear and unique intention, the reception is very good and they are very generous with their stories and time,” Plow says about the veterans.
Fredricks and Plow have a standard set of questions for each participant, which are offered in advance of the shoot. The veteran is filmed against a black backdrop with simple lighting.
“The subjects tend to launch into an eloquent and moving recounting of their experiences,” Plow says.
Though the interviews are standardized for the sake of research integrity, Plow and Fredricks also seek opportunities to shoot additional footage of the veterans’ lives in order to paint a fuller, honest picture of them in the documentary. The subjects have been fairly amenable, allowing the filmmakers to capture family dinners or birthday parties. Plow notes that the main constraint is time, especially as some of the subjects live outside of Ohio.
As for the veterans’ interactions with the health care system, Fredricks says that “probably the most common theme we see is false assumptions on the part of clinicians.” For example, a veteran recounted how his local physician assumed he was seeking heavy painkillers for a fractured spine problem, when the patient wanted only to refill an ibuprofen prescription. Fredricks has found—in the interviews and research—that clinicians also don’t understand Veterans Affairs services, including how veterans can easily access them.
The Final Edit
Fredricks and Plow, who have a grant from the Ohio University Research Committee, released a teaser trailer of the documentary during spring 2015 to support their efforts to recruit subjects and to raise additional funds. The nearly four-minute video shows interviews with male and female veterans of various ages, combat footage of flight medics caring for wounded soldiers, and scenes from domestic life.
Although the goal is to produce an hour-long documentary, Fredricks notes that he and Plow will create multiple versions of the film in different lengths for teaching and outreach purposes. Several medical schools already have expressed interest in showing the documentary to their students.
The Ohio University team has gathered enough compelling material to potentially produce documentaries on additional, related topics as well, Plow says. For example, the flight medics have unique experience treating soldiers in combat. The duo has received permission to use existing and new footage shot by the medics in future films, he adds.
As the documentary project moves forward, Fredricks notes that other researchers have expressed interest in expanding on his study of physicians’ awareness of and comfort level with veterans populations, such as by surveying larger or different groups of doctors or examining issues such as emotional trauma or chemical exposure.
By Veterans’ Day 2016, the Ohio University team hopes to release the full documentary. Although there are more interviews and footage to capture, Fredricks and Plow understand that their project is timely, with interest in veterans’ issues high.
“We want it to be as relevant as possible as soon as possible,” Plow says.
The duo also sees potential in teaching their research and documentary process to others, so that medical schools could use it for outreach and education on a wide variety of medical matters.
“You can do legitimate research in a beautiful way,” Fredricks says. “The elegance of the format can help build knowledge.”
More information about the project can be found online at http://www.mediainmedicine.com/ .
This article appears in Ohio University’s Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship and creative work of faculty, staff and students.