New film highlights health care woes through an Oakland ER

A new documentary out today, The Waiting Room, exposes the woes of the health care system through the backdrop of an emergency department waiting room.

“I spent a lot of time in the hospital before shooting the film,” says film director Peter Nicks. “I would walk through the ER waiting room on the way to my meetings. I would come back and see a lot of the same people in the waiting room.”

Viewers experience not only the frustrations of the patients, but also glimpses into their personal stories as we eavesdrop on their conversations.

Taking place in Oakland’s Highland Hospital, most patients are uninsured — including the newly uninsured who lost their insurance when they lost their jobs. The hospital, like many, is a safety net for those who can’t afford timely care. It tells the story of a segment of the health care system oft overlooked.

“This is a community that needed to speak for itself — no narration, no text cards,” Nicks says. “Highland is very representative of a lot of communities around the country.”

Nicks aims to put faces behind a health care debate that has become more political and partisan than about helping individual patients.

“The voices that are dominating health care reform discussions are journalists, politicians, pundits, analysts, but not the people stuck in these waiting rooms,” he says.

Nicks says that as he’s shown the film in various cities, several people have told him that he is telling their story – even those 2,000 miles away from Oakland.

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For example, the film shows the struggles of patients who wait months to be seen in clinics for painful or life-threatening medical conditions, which is not a rare phenomenon, especially in inner cities.

Davelo Lujuan had his wages cut after his boss gave him an ultimatum: the boss found immigrants willing to work for less money and if Lujuan wanted to keep working he had to take a pay cut. As a result, he couldn’t afford his bills, let along health insurance.

When asked if Nicks worried that the film would cast a bad light on the hospital by by showing how long patients have to wait in the ER, he pointed out that the film shows the battles that doctors and the hospital fight as well. Viewers watch the staff — a certified nurse assistant, nurses and doctors — take care of 250 ER patients a day, more than 10 an hour, with limited resources and limited personnel.

“The hospital took a really big risk in letting us take an intimate look at their patient population,” Nicks says. “We weren’t trying to place blame on the hospital per se or the patients per se either.”

The Waiting Room opens in New York City today and Los Angeles later this week. It continues showing nationwide through 2013.

Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty or on Facebook.