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Mayo Clinic Documentary from Renowned Filmmaker Ken Burns Airs Tuesday Night on PBS

The two-hour documentary looks at the history of Mayo Clinic, how it handles the challenges of healthcare today, and what the industry as a whole can learn from Mayo Clinic’s operations.

Mayo Clinic Documentary from Renowned Filmmaker Ken Burns Airs Tuesday Night on PBS
Documentarian Ken Burns. (Photo courtesy of FDR Presidential Library and Museum)

One of Minnesota’s oldest icons, Mayo Clinic, has gotten the Hollywood treatment courtesy of award-winning documentarian Ken Burns. His new two-hour film, titled The Mayo Clinic: Faith-Hope-Science, explores the creation, evolution, achievement and lessons to be learned from the medical system.

It debuts Tuesday, September 25 at 8 p.m. CST on PBS.

A result of more than three-and-a-half years of work, the documentary traces Mayo Clinic’s history starting with its founding by William Worrall Mayo and the influence of the Sisters of Saint Francis to open the medical institution. The historical narrative is voiced by Peter Coyote, with contributions from Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston, Kevin Conway, Blythe Danner, Josh Lucas, Carolyn McCormick and Gene Jones.

The film also includes interviews with historians, Mayo Clinic leaders, staff and patients. Among the patients who shared their Mayo Clinic stories are John McCain, Dalai Lama, and a Minnesota violinist who underwent a tremor-curing operation there in which the man agreed to stay conscious through the procedure, so doctors could tell if their efforts were fixing the tremor by having him play the violin as they worked.  

Burns’ interest in making the film started when he himself experienced the Mayo Clinic’s operation firsthand, albeit in a much more basic visit.

“I went as a patient to get an annual checkup and just could not believe it and got curious and started asking questions about it and started making a film,” Burns told television host Seth Meyers in a recent interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Burns, who executive produced the Mayo documentary and co-directed it along with Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers, said in a letter published by Mayo Clinic that he was hesitant at first to do the film. This is partly because at the time, in 2015, he was busy with a bevy of other projects. Additionally, he was afraid Mayo Clinic would try to steer him from the fully objective, human-focused kind of documentary he’s used to making.

Instead, Mayo Clinic CEO and president John Noseworthy assured Burns that he could have total, unfiltered creative control and access to Mayo Clinic locations, people and facilities, and if Burns turned over something unsavory about the Clinic, Noseworthy would welcome the chance to fix it. 

“And John was true to his word,” wrote Burns. “We were granted extraordinary access to people and places and archives.”

The film’s narrative is driven particularly by a focus on what the Mayo Clinic has done to meet changing demands of the healthcare industry, and what its success teaches about facing the challenges of patient care today.

“We have a screwed-up healthcare system right now, [but] this is not a political film… it’s saying what’s in front of us is a great example of what works,” Burns told Meyers.

However, the documentary does show areas with room for improvement, such as access—an industry-wide issue. As an example, Burns and his team followed a patient who had to wait almost a year to get an appointment. The patient was also worried about losing medical coverage mid-process when her husband lost his job.

Given his background of tackling sweeping historical moments in American history and culture—his most recent project was the 2017 documentary The Vietnam War—the Mayo Clinic may seem a little narrower a subject than usual. But Burns believes the story of the Mayo Clinic is just as American as the rest of his work, which have covered baseball, national parks, and jazz among other topics.

In the lead up to its debut, Burns’ Mayo documentary is building up plenty of buzz.

For the select few who have already seen the film—or parts of it—there’s also been praise aplenty.

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