Close this search box.

Last-Resort Health Care in The Waiting Room

My son is a Physician’s Assistant in a hospital emergency room so, for fact-checking purposes, I asked him to come along when I went to see The Waiting Room.

He readily confirmed the validity of Peter Nicks’ new documentary about the sickness, bureaucracy, frustration, hope and hard choices faced by patients and their medical providers at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. Enjoying unprecedented access to his subjects, Nicks followed several sick and often desperate patients as they encountered the staff, services and limitations of the ER.

“I’ve seen all those patients in the ER,” said my son. “And that’s the way it is. You give your all to help them, but it’s still the emergency room and there’s only so much you can do.”

He refers to the reality that the emergency room has become the treatment center of last resort in American health care. If you don’t have health insurance and access to a doctor, you wait until you’re desperate; then, you try your luck at the ER.

Nicks filmed 24 hours at Highland Hospital, following several specific patients as well as a number of doctors, technicians and, especially, the affable nurse who greeted ER arrivals and managed their wait. More than 240 patients – along with their friends and family members – crowded the ER that day (and every day). Waiting for hours as others with life-threatening or more serious ailments were triaged ahead of them, their pain was palatable and their frustration sometimes boiled over. Well-suited for her mission, the ER nurse displayed all the humor, empathy and seasoned patience necessary to handle the steady stream of anxiety and complaint.

Even after seeing a doctor, many patients found little solace at the ER. They received care for the immediate flare-up, but, with their conditions chronic, many required follow-up. Yet, as the ER staff knew, without insurance and access to specialized care outside the ER, many would not be monitored and would be back, perhaps much sicker, as soon as their next health crisis ensued. Several staffers worked the phones looking for doctors who would take on desperate indigents or for social service providers who would assist with housing or other crucial patient needs. Sometimes, they succeeded; often, they could not.

Avoiding all words of reproach for the way our health care system now operates, Nicks draws his viewer into the tense, deeply personal, stressful yet hopeful milieu where those in desperation and without options now meet their last resort. For this reviewer, The Waiting Room was educational and inspiring, and it made him happy that, with Obamacare, the U.S. has stepped out toward the goal of health care insurance for all.

Winner of a variety of awards, including the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, The Waiting Room opened in September. The movie trailer is here.

Recent Lifelines