“The Waiting Room” Inspires a New Model of Care

It's difficult, when watching The Waiting Room, to move past the greater ills of society — addiction and drug abuse, gang- and non-gang-related shootings, poverty and homelessness — and focus on the health care element of the story's equation. But the most compelling question asked by Peter Nicks’ film is, "What's wrong with this picture?"

Nicks' 2012 film follows patients, health care providers and staff in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., for 24 hours. Highland is a public hospital. It accepts all patients, insured or not. The emergency department waiting room is forever busy, filled with patients whose ailments range from bone spurs and strep infection to kidney failure, testicular cancer and gunshot wounds.

The emergency department team acts as family medicine practitioners, specialists and trauma care providers — with additional responsibilities as social workers and insurance advisers. As one doctor notes, more than a few "docs got into the ER because of TV. There are gunshot wounds and chest tubes, but there are also people who just need to get their blood pressure medicine refilled." Not much glamour at Highland.

This film insists on admiration, both for patients with the tenacity to struggle through a system that makes them feel helpless and keeps them defensive and for health care providers who are consistently respectful, friendly, reassuring and as helpful as they can be in an unbelievably noisy and stressful environment.

That the health care team does a great job in a far-less-than-optimum system, however, is cause for inspiration. Imagine how effective they'd be working in a reimagined environment that addresses the current system's shortcomings. The emergency department may not be the most viable model to meet the needs of public hospital patients today.