“The Waiting Room” casts a site-specific spotlight on the services of Oakland’s Highland Hospital while also illustrating the predicaments of the nation’s uninsured. Small but satisfying, this documentary leaves you informed, moved and feeling richer for having encountered the people and scenarios it features.
Director Peter Nicks presents what he calls a “composite day in the life” of the emergency room experience at Highland Hospital, Alameda County’s main public hospital and trauma center.
Like documentarian Frederick Wiseman, Nicks immerses his camera in his institutional setting and captures both the operational workings and the humanity therein. To that, Nicks adds a real-life character tapestry featuring patients and medical moments filmed over a five-month stretch.
Granted terrific access to Highland, Nicks serves up the emergency room whirl: patients galore processed by the admissions staff, patients waiting for hours to see a doctor, doctors and patients interacting, a trauma team trying to save a gunshot victim.
Patients include a child with an out-of-work father and an untreated case of strep throat, a self-employed carpet-layer with back pain caused by bone spurs, a young man urgently needing surgery for a testicular tumor and a frequently admitted addict with nowhere else to go.
Through such material, the film addresses how Highland has become a primary-care facility for uninsured patients seeking emergency treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure and other common conditions that insured people generally deal with in regular doctor’s office visits. The uninsured often have no regular physician and may wait months before receiving follow-up attention, physician Doug White says.
White, who at one point is shown guilt-tripping a neurologist into accepting a patient who might otherwise fall through the cracks, is one of two medical figures Nicks features prominently.
The other is Cynthia Johnson, the certified nurse assistant who oversees the waiting room area with efficiency and kindness.
Other staff members display similar mixes of competence and TLC, and, by showing none of the negative qualities that surely exist somewhere within these institutional walls, Nicks’ rosy brand of realism has us wondering whether a few shades might be missing from the film.
Overall, however, Nicks delivers an exceptional behind-the-scenes look at what goes on at this large urban medical facility. He makes the energy and urgency of the setting resonate. He introduces us to people whose dedication and caring are inspiring.
Without preaching, he powerfully illustrates how people who don’t have employers to provide them with health insurance simply don’t have equal access to health care. Voiceovers by patients enhance the picture painted of this situation.
The film received the Audience and Golden Gate awards for best documentary at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Consider it a pleaser with something truly worthy to say.