Oakland’s Highland Hospital is the primary source of care for many uninsured people in the area. Local filmmaker Peter Nicks and his team decided to turn their lens on the hospital’s emergency room, where patients can wait up to 14 hours or more. He called the documentary “The Waiting Room,” a compilation of interviews with nurses, hospital administrators and patients ranging from a pregnant woman assaulted by her ex-boyfriend, to a man hobbling on his swollen foot. Nicks joins us to talk about his behind-the-scenes look at Highland Hospital and what health care is like for today’s uninsured.

The Waiting Room Theatrical Trailer from The Waiting Room on Vimeo.

How do you think America's health care policy impacts local hospitals and their patients? Share your own stories of waiting in the ER.

Peter Nicks, documentary filmmaker of "The Waiting Room"

  • fsharp

    We were living in Mexico without insurance, where healthcare is pretty inexpensive. On the way back to San Francisco my wife had an extremely dramatic episode of pain in her abdomen. Her doctor of many years would not treat her without insurance and so we wound up in the emergency room at San Francisco General Hospital. While my wife was on the floor writhing in unimaginable pain, we waited in that room for 13 tortuous hours, never knowing if we could be called next.

    I remember thinking that the waiting room is simply a cruel human filter. It keeps everyone out but the most sick. There is no comfort, just plastic chairs, an extremely loud tv, harsh flickering lights, and a room full of very sick people with all the associated smells and sounds. Needless to say I work hard every day to keep my family from having to go back there.

  • Animalia

    It’s obvious that over the years, emergency rooms are being used more and more for the uninsured’s primary care purposes. Not only is this financially inefficient, it’s dangerous as very ill people may have to wait hours to be seen. A few years ago, I went to an emergency room in Los Angeles with a head injury and had to wait over three hours to be seen. Once I got into a bed and out of the waiting area I got excellent care, but waiting those three hours was torture. I now do everything possible to avoid emergency rooms, even if that means putting off treatment that could be essential until I can get an appointment with my regular doctor.

  • RA

    This is a complex issue etc, but something about Dave Iverson’s intro to the segment caught my ear: “filmed over months it captures a composite day…”

    IF that’s how it’s structured, as “a day in the life”, then it is inherently deceptive as a documentary since it no doubt cherry-picks the most poignant incidents that fit the narrative. Even doing it all in one day there is editorial discretion, but over months that is amplified many fold.

    And, BTW, what does this have to do with “public hospitals” and uninsured people? Yes, their plight is worse, but people with insurance who go to the emergency room for a broken bone or any actual emergency also wait for hours and hours as well.

    • Ney

      As an ER nurse at Highland I can attest to the fact that this documentary may have been filmed over many months but it is not overly editorialized and it does a fantastic job at capturing a composite day. As I was watching the film I felt like it could have been any number of days at Highland. And, as a nurse who also works part-time at a private hospital, I can attest that people do not wait nearly as long as they do at public hospitals. Since you are comparing the uninsured with the insured, I feel compelled to mention that if you are uninsured and find yourself in an emergency department at a private hospital your discharge paperwork (unless your situation is imminent death unless immediately treated) may not be more than a referral to seek follow-up at whatever public hospital is in your county.
      Of course accessing our health care system, insured or not, is frustrating, difficult and time consuming but I hope you don’t think that the insured and uninsured are facing the same wait times and hurdles to accessing and receiving care.

      • swimmy44

        I totally agree with Ney’s comment. I and my husband both work for the VA, the largest medical system in the world so we are pretty informed consumers and observers of hospital care. I saw the film on opening night and I would not call it overly dramatic or “deceptive” – rather, it was obvious that the film maker and others who worked on the film selected “typical” cases one would see in a normal “day” with a mix of the types of folks (class, income level, racial) who live in the area and who would come there for care for whatever reason. The edited version of the final film was taken from 8 weeks of visitors to the waiting room for care, according to the film maker. The production was a very moving rendition of a 24 hour period and the whole process from the initial idea of the film to last Friday’s night’s premier at The Grand Lake Theater started in 2007.

  • Bob Fry

    I too have an ER waiting room horror story. My wife felt a very odd heart beat, off and on, over some time, and finally went to her regular doctor for an exam. While being hooked up to a cardio machine the same irregular rhythms manifested again. The doc took a look and said “you need to go to the ER right now. Get someone to drive you.” I rushed over and we drove to the same hospital’s ER (it was a different location from the clinic)…where we waited for 6 hours without being called, and finally gave up and went home. This was with insurance.

    If Obamacare does nothing else but make the ER a true Emergency Room, that will be enough for me.

  • D

    I work in Oakland, in the health field in a nursing home. At times Highland begs us to take their non insured gun shot wounded pt. my question is do you plan on following through as to what happens after the waiting room? Part 2 in the skilled nursing facility???

  • Amy

    I’m from Great Britain and have lived in California for four years. I’ve had experience of both healthcare systems and have been fascinated by the way things are run here. Fundamentally, the difference in ERs is that in England there is never any question of insurance or cost. I’ve had excellent experiences of care here, in the ER and regular care, but I’ve found the endless obstacles of insurance a big adjustment to make.

    I hope to see a day when we have universal healthcare here, so that nurses and doctors can continue doing their amazing work without getting bogged down in insurance challenges, and so that very sick people can get the care they need without worrying about the financial costs.

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Have never had a bad ER experience, and maybe that’s because the few times we ended up in the ER it was a real emergency which got us in fast.

    One concern I have per the Affordable Care Act is the number of physicians we know who are going cash/credit only or are retiring early. And few if any physicians in our area will be taking Medicare patients anymore. We already have a physician shortage and I think its going to get worse in the next few years.

    Then there is the whole issue of preventative lifestyle issues. How many people are sick because they choose drugs, alcohol, junk food over better choices? How do we change that?

  • Susan

    I begged the ambulance drivers to take my husband from the auto collision to Kaiser Oakland where we have insurance, but they insisted that they were required to take him to Highland, passing by Kaiser on the way. It took me more than ten hours to get him out of the Highland emergency room. There was no doctor to sign his release.
    An understanding nurse hinted that some people just walk out (if they have clothes; his had been cut off). She brought us someone’s laundered sweats and we walked out without being questioned. Needless to say, we drove a few blocks to Kaiser where he was admitted again within 10 minutes of arriving.
    During the ten hours at Highland I saw people wait all day. I also saw staff trying their very best to get people in and on to care.

  • Mark

    I’ve had the same thing happen in Canada. Waiting all night in the chairs because the ER beds were full, and so was the hospital. I could have been seen and sent back to the hotel, but the system required a bed.

  • Kathryn Sparks

    Universal healthcare is what we need here in America. I
    recently received an “I love Obamacare” bumper sticker in the mail and as much
    as I applaud Mr. Obama’s efforts and he certainly has made some steps in the
    right direction, I simply cannot put this bumper sticker on my car. The real
    reason is that health care and health insurance simply are not the same. Even
    Mr. Iverson gets them confused. He and so many others talking about this issue
    in the media interchange health care and health insurance as if they are the
    same. They are not. Health care does not equal health insurance. Health
    insurance companies represent the corporatization of our entire healthcare
    system. They have little to do with actual health care period.

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