The corporatization of health care, cost containment that often cuts patient services, resistant strains of microorganisms — there are a lot of issues in medicine that just aren't funny. That is, unless you're Greg LaGana, MD, an occupational medicine physician at Merck Pharmaceuticals in Rahway , N.J., and Barry Levy, MD, a Sherborn, Mass. — based environmental and occupational health consultant and Tufts University School of Medicine instructor. When they're not helping patients, they're cracking up audiences across the country with “Damaged Care: A Cabaret-style Musical Comedy about Health Care in America.”
Gray-bearded LaGana (pictured at left) plays a former hippie-turned doctor who is focused on his patients' needs. Levy plays a more corporate type of doc who keeps his eye on the bottom line. The two use props (just think: a do-it-yourself colonoscopy test), costumes, and a piano accompanist to belt out their takes on current health care issues to tunes from well-known musicals including West Side Story, A Little Night Music, and Annie Get Your Gun.
“We're in no way belittling the situation,” says Levy. “The show enables us to address problems that, if we stood at a podium and gave a speech about them, the audience'd probably throw tomatoes at us. By doing it this way, people can laugh a little, maybe even cry a little, and get a better understanding of the issues.”
“Their performance is a marvelously perceptive critique of what's been happening in medicine,” says Mark Levy, executive director of the Committee of Interns and Residents, who hired the dynamic duo to perform at his organization's annual conference in Washington, D.C., last May.
“We opened that morning with a presentation about the long hours residents and interns work, and all day we had serious sessions on all the factors in the health care system that, instead of making things better, are making things worse. When these guys performed between the end of the day's sessions and a pre-dinner reception, they were the perfect transition. Everyone headed off to the reception buzzing and talking about the issues, instead of looking to escape after a day of heavy sessions.”
LaGana, who considers himself a rock keyboardist with an excellent day job, and Levy, who served as president of the American Public Health Association in 1997, first met as medical students at Cornell Medical College. They soon began writing musical comedies satirizing medical education, which they performed for their classmates.
Fast forward to 1994, when the two reunited to put together a musical about health care issues for their 25th medical school reunion. It went over so well that they took their show on the road: They since have performed the show 37 times in 16 states, to rave reviews.
While their singing voices won't get them to the Met any time soon, their message comes across loud and clear. “We have done shows for all kinds of audiences,” says Levy, from medical societies and state public health associations to the Presbyterian Church and Families USA. “We even did a show for the Massachusetts Hospital Association, which is a little on the conservative side, but they liked it as much as groups that might be more liberal politically, like the Physicians for a National Health Program.”
But have they performed for an HMO? “Not yet, but sooner or later we will,” says Levy. “I hope they like it.”