Stanford Clinical Instructor & Academy Directing Student Redefines Role of Medical Director

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A still from Care Flight in the Golden Hour. Photo courtesy of Dr. Henry Curtis, M.D.

The work of Dr. Henry Curtis, M.D. illustrates the intersection of medicine and the humanities. As a clinical instructor of emergency medicine at Stanford, Curtis enlists video-based learning tools to prepare students for future professional challenges. 

But he’s not just using existing video to supplement his syllabus. Curtis, who is pursuing an M.F.A. in directing at Academy of Art University, also guides students in producing original educational video content.

Although doctor and filmmaker may seem like wildly different careers, Curtis sees parallels between the two. Both fields present complex, high-pressure, time-sensitive, decision-dense environments. 

They also share a capacity for storytelling. “Emergency medicine is a place where you hear people’s histories, interpret them and share their stories,” Curtis said. “I was hoping to add a more visual medium for storytelling.”

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Dr. Henry Curtis, M.D. Photo courtesy of Dr. Henry Curtis, M.D.

Curtis’ fascination with film dates to his youth. “When I had a choice to film something or take a photo, I would always choose film,” he recalled. Still, he didn’t actively work to develop a filmmaking skill set. 

Then, late in his emergency medical residency, Curtis chose video-based learning and disaster medicine as his specialty. In evaluating the impact of a teaching video he created, Curtis found that a group of students who watched the video outperformed students exposed only to the usual training methods. He became further convinced of the potential to explore and advance the niche field during a fellowship in Sydney.

“Video very much is a game changer,” Curtis said. “You can offer people anywhere in the world the same quality of education.”

Upon relocating to San Francisco, Curtis decided it was time to master filmmaking. He entered the Academy’s M.F.A. directing program in Fall 2013. “It’s something that challenges me and gets me to put all of my gears in motion: intelligence, communication skills, problem-solving,” Curtis said. 

To allow time for his teaching, researching and grant writing responsibilities at Stanford, Curtis takes only one class per term. “To me, it’s more of a journey,” he said. “Each time I take a class, I’m able to maximize what I get out of it.”

Curtis shares his filmmaking skills with Stanford students in a class he developed, EMED 228: Emergency Video Production. The course teaches students the filmmaking skills necessary to create a medical documentary by term’s end. An exploratory, collaborative approach bolstered by input from teaching assistant and medical student Hannah Rasmussen, as well as enrollees, shaped the inaugural offering of the course. 

A mixture of undergraduate, graduate and medical students with varying degrees of filmmaking experience comprised the class roster. “Through the collaborative process, I tried to find ways to let them explore their interests and still get the job done,” said Curtis. 

Together, the class produced Care Flight in the Golden Hour, which followed an air ambulance crew based in Truckee, Calif., near Lake Tahoe. All shooting took place in a single day. Watching the students in action filled Curtis with pride. 

“I especially remember one moment, when we were filming a patient being loaded into a helicopter and the helicopter flying away,” Curtis said. “I looked around me and saw six cameras focused on capturing the moment. It was amazing to see that level of focus.” 

About 30 students and faculty members watched the film at a screening and Q&A session. The documentary can also be viewed online. 

Curtis is already planning ways to switch up the class format. Next time, the class may make a short narrative film, which would involve writing a screenplay and enlisting doctors to participate. He also intends to allocate more time for post-production. 

Filmmaking projects of a nonmedical nature are in Curtis’ future, too. Last semester at the Academy, he took a course in 360-degree virtual reality filmmaking that ignited his interest. He’s currently writing a screenplay for a 360-degree short about humans’ misconceptions of dogs, shot from the canine perspective. 

It’s safe to assume that Curtis is also pondering the field’s potential for enhancing medical education, the field that inspired him to study directing. 

“I’m very thankful that I’m able to develop professional quality products and change the way people think,” Curtis said.