Call it the real-life St. Elsewhere, and you won’t be far off the mark.
Highland General Hospital is where the neediest of Oakland, Calif., often wind up when they’re most in need of medical care. Trouble is, people who arrive at its understaffed and overcrowded emergency room often must wait for hours to see a physician. And the wait only gets longer if there’s a sudden influx of trauma patients — gunshot victims, auto mishap survivors, whatever — who take first priority over those with injuries or maladies that aren’t immediately life-threatening.
During the contentious congressional battles, Nick felt compelled to focus on people “stuck in waiting rooms at underfunded public hospitals all over the country” because they lacked the wherewithal to seek help elsewhere.
Under normal circumstances, the Highland ER is the last place on earth most patients would care to be. And for some of them… well, it really is the last place on earth they ever visit.
The Waiting Room, the acclaimed documentary opening Wednesday in Houston at the Sundance Cinemas, offers audiences an uncomfortably close view of working and waiting at Highland, a public hospital that, as one of its doctors notes, is “an institution of last resort for so many people.”
The film, shot over a period of five months in 2010, has been shaped and structured by director Peter Nicks to render a composite day in the lives of patients and caregivers. Eschewing narration and titles, Nicks takes a cinéma vérité approach to detailing the barely contained chaos of a place where staffers and resources routinely are stretched to the breaking point while dealing with the desperate demands of a mostly poor and black – and, not surprisingly, uninsured – clientele.
And while doing so, Nicks forces us to consider just how accurately and extensively Highland reflects all that is wrong with the American health-care system.
The Waiting Room, Nicks says, “is a story and a symbol of our national community — and how our common vulnerability to illness binds us together as humans."
The film was inspired by stories Nicks’ wife, a Highland speech pathologist, told him about “the struggles and resilience of her patient population.” During the contentious congressional battles over what supporters and detractors alike have come to call Obamacare, Nick felt compelled to focus on folks who weren’t participating in the public debates — people “stuck in waiting rooms at underfunded public hospitals all over the country” because they lacked the wherewithal to seek help elsewhere.
Nicks will be on hand to discuss these and other issues covered in The Waiting Room during a Q&A session after the 6:15 p.m. Wednesday screening at the Sundance Cinemas.
“By following the caregivers and patients as they passed through the waiting room,” Nicks said, “we felt we could shed some light on the challenges of delivering primary health care in an environment designed for emergency medicine. What we found was that the uninsured were more likely to be hospitalized for avoidable conditions because there is virtually no continuity of care — no regular doctor to get a detailed medical history and then [schedule] a follow-up visit to make sure the prescribed treatment is working.
“And because the wait times are so long — both in the emergency department and to see a doctor in the clinics — simple conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes can escalate to severe life-threatening emergencies like strokes or kidney failure. These true emergencies end up back in the emergency department but at a much higher personal and financial cost.”
Nicks will be on hand to discuss these and other issues covered in The Waiting Room during a Q&A session after the 6:15 p.m. Wednesday screening at the Sundance Cinemas (he will also speak at a luncheon Thursday at La Colombe D’Or sponsored by a consortium of local health care organizations, including the San Jose Clinic). But, really, he hopes the film speaks – clearly, objectively and thought-provokingly – for itself.