Below is a contribution from Michael J. Bernhagen, Co-Producer of Consider the Conversation: A Documentary on a Taboo Subject.

While we are thrilled about the recent award for Consider the Conversation: A Documentary on a Taboo Subject, Terry Kaldhusdal and I realize the most important outcome of our work began unfolding one year ago, right here in Wisconsin.

In January of 2011, the Wisconsin Medical Society’s Council on Health Care Ethics asked me to address Council members in our capitol city of Madison. The Council said it had significant interest in the topic of advance care planning, but I was immediately skeptical for two reasons. First, I had repeatedly encountered a general attitude of “polite indifference” toward end-of-life issues when calling on doctors in the course of my hospice work. And, second, I privately feared the Council’s agenda revolved more around pursuing legislative mandates than establishing “best practice” patterns for discovering, documenting and honoring the wishes of chronically and terminally ill people.

In the boardroom that cold day were 20 of Wisconsin’s top medical minds along with another 10 physicians joining in by conference call. During the 90-minute talk, I shared our personal stories of loss, presented several clips from the film and concluded with Consider the Conversation’s three part call to action, the most important of which is for medical professionals, healthcare organizations and clergy to take the lead in counseling others. The presentation went well and representatives from the Medical Society subsequently attended the February 5, 2011 premiere of our documentary in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

 A few months later, Terry and I returned to Madison to present at the Society’s annual conference for its physician membership. Although the room was set up for an audience of 300 that day, only 30 doctors attended. We initially concluded the poor turnout was a major setback, but our disappointment faded quickly when John Maycroft, the Medical Society’s Policy Analyst, called me later that summer. During our chat, he said the organization had “heard” our film’s call to action and decided to respond. In particular, John stated Medical Society members had traveled to La Crosse, Wisconsin and the Twin Cities to learn more about Respecting Choices and Honoring Choices Minnesota (two prominent advance care planning initiatives with close ties to Consider the Conversation) and decided to take the lead on trying to implement a collaborative, statewide Advance Care Planning Project in Wisconsin. 

When asked about the role Consider the Conversation played in the trajectory of the Medical Society’s project, John responded by using musician Brian Eno’s often referenced quote about the influence of a 1960’s band from New York City. He said, “Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band.”

Terry Kaldhusdal and I know that much work lies ahead for the Wisconsin Medical Society as it embarks upon this journey. After all, it’s attempting to change a culture and achieving that kind of goal typically takes years.  

That being said, the Medical Society deserves to be commended for attempting to “put the horse back in front of the cart” on this critically important societal issue. The bottom line? They have renewed our faith in doctors as leaders in American medicine.