Mike Eisenberg Captures the Pulse and Possibility of Patient Safety Innovation in New JHF-Funded Documentary

In the realm of filmmaking, some creators elevate the art of storytelling; they become catalysts for change, igniting conversations and sparking movements. One such creator is Mike Eisenberg, whose journey from the baseball diamond to the director's chair has brought issues of patient safety to the forefront through his documentary films.

A native of Philadelphia with roots in the DC area, Eisenberg's path to film took a detour through the world of professional baseball. Eisenberg helped lead Marietta College to a Division III National Championship before being drafted as a pitcher by the Cleveland Indians in the 2006 Major League Baseball Draft. Moving to Chicago after his brief pro baseball career, Eisenberg discovered his true calling at the Tribeca Flashpoint Academy, where he honed his craft and emerged as a creative force alongside his wife Kailey. Together, they founded Tall Tale Productions, a production company dedicated to crafting compelling documentary-style films and commercial shorts.

While Eisenberg's initial foray into filmmaking with Whoop Dreams garnered attention for its exploration of subcultures, it was his sophomore effort, To Err is Human: A Patient Safety Documentary, that propelled him into the spotlight.

To Err is Human was inspired by the legacy of his father, the late Dr. John Eisenberg. A pioneer in medical decision making, quality improvement, and patient safety, Dr. Eisenberg served as the Director for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ; formerly called the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), from 1997 until shortly before his death from a brain tumor in 2002. He also served as the Senior Advisor to the Secretary of HHS on Quality; cochaired the Department's Data Council; chaired the Federal Quality Interagency Coordination Task Force; and served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and as Acting Assistant Secretary for Health.

With To Err is Human, Eisenberg embarked on a three-year in-depth documentary film project to shed light on the epidemic of preventable medical error in health systems and those working quietly behind the scenes to create a patient safety revolution.

"At first, we did the project because we wanted AHRQ to be respected and fully funded. But as we were making the project, it really became about showcasing patient safety, not through stories of tragedy, horror, and harm, but through the stories of people doing the work to improve it," Eisenberg explained.

By taking his father's positive, and sometimes humorous, approach to improving quality in health care, Eisenberg has found new ways to promote a culture of safety at the healthcare organizations that invite him to speak at screenings and panel discussions across the globe.

When asked what his father would think about his work, Eisenberg said, "I do think about it a lot. I think he would be annoyed that he was in it. I've snuck C-SPAN footage of him into each of the films because I just felt they needed that cameo. He passed away when I was 18, so filmmaking wasn't even a blip on my radar yet. But my dad's efforts guided the approach in creating To Err Is Human in 2019 and continues to inspire our work with The Pitch. I'm sure he would be proud of that."

In January 2023, JHF approved a grant for Tall Tale Productions to produce a 60-minute feature-length documentary film about the evolving role of technology in improving patient safety. The Pitch: Patient Safety's Next Generation delves into the intersection of healthcare innovation and patient safety by telling the story of one innovator Reetam Ganguli, a Brown MD candidate and OB/GYN machine learning (ML) researcher who has developed Elythea, a tool that identifies the risk factors that are otherwise undetected until later stages of pregnancy, giving the mother time to prepare.

The crew of Tall Tale Productions found Reetam through the University of San Diego's Fowler Global Social Innovation Competition where he won a $5,000 prize (from JHF's Patient Safety Technology Challenge) to help him scale his idea.

"Reetam feels like the perfect example of what young innovators are like. He talks fast; he thinks quickly; he's always prepared. But he's young, so he has this view of the world that it's his for the taking," Eisenberg said.

For Reetam, the stakes of his innovation are somewhat personal. After receiving a screening diagnosis that he is at high risk for developing cancer due to hereditary factors, he becomes motivated to leave a mark on the world. He created Elythea to provide diagnosis to pregnant women before birth to provide them and their infants with the opportunity to respond and live full lives.

Reetam's story is just one of the 2,174 students found through the Patient Safety Technology Challenge-sponsored innovation events. All the winning competitors sponsored through the Patient Safety Technology Challenge from September 2022 through mid-2023 were screened for the film.

Eisenberg said that unlike To Err is Human, The Pitch was created with a much shorter production runway, which Eisenberg said was intimidating at first but inspired the team to focus more sharply, be prepared, and make deliberate decisions about the innovators and narratives to include in the film.

"We had a great team, and JHF had already done a lot of the work for us. I think this movie works because JHF had already experienced the landscape of technology and patient safety and were able to get us into contact with people while giving us the creative freedom and autonomy to tell the story for maximum impact. That is very rare in filmmaking," Eisenberg said, lauding the expertise of JHF President and CEO Karen Wolk Feinstein, PhD, Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative Patient Safety Consultant Ariana Longley, MPH, and JHF Chief Communications Officer Scotland Huber, MS.

By a curious turn of events, Mike's father John was an early advocate of PRHI and Karen attributes their successful launch—and her just-in-time education in patient safety—to John's mentorship.

Eisenberg's message is clear: innovation in healthcare requires collaboration, dedication, and a relentless pursuit of solutions. That message speaks to a trifecta of stakeholders: Healthcare systems, innovators, and patients. The film calls healthcare leaders to be open to the promise of new technology, innovators to turn their expertise and focus to patient safety, and audience members to look at their own healthcare systems to ask if their needs are being met and how technology can assist their providers in getting them the best care.

When asked where he'll turn his camera next, Eisenberg said without hesitation "a conch shell blowing competition in Key West, Florida." His next documentary will focus on the complex history of the conch shell and how it is a species on the brink of extinction. But for now, Eisenberg is preparing for the responsibilities beyond production, acknowledging the importance of his role as a spokesperson for the film.

"That's a huge responsibility that I take very seriously...It tells you something that makes you want to keep talking about it. And that's why I think this movie is going to have legs. It doesn't answer all your questions, but it presents a world that is still unfolding, and one that you can make an impact on," Eisenberg said. 

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