The best medicine: a film review of Patch Adams

The old paternalistic way of patient care is out the door as Robin Williams stars as Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams in this Oscar nominated film. Laughter is the best medicine is his mantra as he parades around the hospital in the best costumes you’ll ever see while breaking all health and safety regulations. Funny man Robin Williams portrays Patch as an awkward man whom everyone cannot help but love. The film leaves you crying, laughing and going through the complete spectrum of human emotions.

The plot

Patch commits himself into an inpatient psychiatric unit for depression and suicidal intentions. Whilst there he finds himself appalled by the false ‘how does this make you feel?’ treatment he gets from his psychiatrists. As the class clown on the wards, he inadvertently improves the quality of life of his co patients, by lifting their spirits and becoming a confidant. Patch realizes that he is at his best when helping others to find solutions to their problems and difficulties. He drastically discharges himself against medical advice and applies to medical school!

On getting an ‘I’m going to make doctors out of you’ speech by the dean of his medical school, he decides that he doesn’t want to be the old school sort of doctor. He refuses to conform to the ideals of doctors being better and more intelligent that their patients. As Patch simply put it, ‘the patient is the doctor too’ and they know what is best for them, defining autonomy with one easy phrase.

Patch took it on as his duty to attack the enemy which he felt was the indifference he felt was present in the treatment of patients, by his superiors. He paraded the hospital giving dying patients the lift they needed while also trying to fulfil their dying wishes whether it was a swimming pool full of spaghetti or a mock safari with animal balloons. Patch stuck to his belief that a happy patient is a healthy patient and was willing to give the evidence for it as change in catecholamine levels when you laugh.

While on his quest he realized that the only way to make his vision a reality was by opening a free clinic and recruited fellow medical students who helped him start it up, in an abandoned cottage. He named the clinic ‘Gesundheit Institute’ meaning the good health institute, and with time, he acquired a 320 acre property in West Virginia where the dream still lives.

But his journey through medical school was not as straight forward as one would expect for a regular student, he faced loss and had the struggles most medical students face. But his blatant disregard for authority and refusal to conform created a huge problem and was almost kicked out of medical school twice.  But Patch had a dream and ran with it, he wanted to be a doctor, but most importantly, he wanted to be a source of hope to people. He wanted the hospital to be a home, a place of comfort and safety rather than fear and grief.

Perhaps the film took the concept rather over the top, you really don’t need to wear squeaky shoes and a red nose to make children laugh, perhaps a little bit of peek-a –boo will be fine, but the message is still quite clear. Laughter and a bit of joy really do make people feel better.

The real Patch

Patch Adams describes himself as a clown doctor, but more than this, he has committed his life to studying what makes people happy. Patch encourages a holistic approach to the care of all patients. Today, the Gesundheit institute offers free medical care to all its patients, complimentary medicine and accepts students for electives as well. It would seem that one defiant medical student who chose to start a revolution is indeed changing the world one patient at a time.

Your Choice

In a mix of laughter and loss, Patch makes us think about what is really important, and asks the question we more often than not have a steadfast answer to. Why did you go to medical school? Do you really want to help people? Or do you just want to be another figure head?

Patch inspires us to go that extra mile, to really scratch the surface and find out what really makes our patients tick and maybe we will be able to find the root of their problems and the reason behind their complex presentations.

So the choice is yours, what will you be prescribing for your patients a good helping of tender loving care or will you stick to the BNF?


  1. Patch Adams. Universal Studios 1998

By Dr Morounkeji Ogunrinde, Hull York Medical School, University of York

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