‘Waiting Room’ film looks at Oakland’s Highland ER San Francisco Chronicle
April 23, 2012
A man who lost his family’s health insurance along with his job
hovers with concern over his young daughter, who has a high
fever. A young man with a testicular tumor arrives on the day he
was supposed to have surgery at another hospital, which turned
him away for lack of coverage. A carpet layer struggles with pain
from chronic bone spurs.
These are some of the faces in local filmmaker Peter Nicks’
documentary “The Waiting Room,” a composite day-in-the-life
treatment of the emergency department at Alameda County’s public
hospital, Oakland’s Highland.
The film, shot over a two-month period in 2010, has its Bay Area
premiere Saturday at the San Francisco International Film
Nicks doesn’t concentrate on the adrenalin-fueled rush of trying
to save lives. Instead, he uses Highland to focus mostly on the
men, women and children who fill emergency waiting rooms each day
as well as the caregivers charged with treating them and
determining who gets seen when.
Nicks, an alumnus of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism
and a former staff producer for ABC News in New York, said he saw
the hospital’s waiting room as “a stage – a turnstile of
“I felt like it was a community whose story hadn’t been told,”
said Nicks, 43, whose wife works at Highland as a speech
pathologist. “I’ve been wanting to make this film for years, well
before the health care debate became so noisy.”
The pressure on emergency rooms, especially at public hospitals
that serve as the safety net for the uninsured, has increased in
recent years as more Americans have lost their job-based health
A safety net
East Oakland’s Highland Hospital sees about 80,000 patients a
year in its emergency department. It is also northern Alameda
County’s main trauma center, so it cares for more than 2,200
patients severely injured annually, regardless of their insurance
“The Waiting Room” portrays the frustration of patients who don’t
realize they will be triaged, meaning they’re not seen on a
first-come, first-served basis. It focuses on the nurse who
deftly manages the waiting room with authority and compassion,
the dialysis patient who is so angry with the system he wants to
stop treatment, the strange comradery that builds between the
people who wait and pray in the same room.
“Unfortunately we see a lot of patients coming in with very
treatable conditions,” said a physician in the film. “I know I
can make someone better in the short term, but the ER is not the
place to manage someone’s overall health.”
While privacy concerns often make hospital administrators leery
of giving camera crews access to patients, Highland’s executives
said they had faith in Nicks’ approach and wanted to offer more
insight into what they do.
“You have to have a level of transparency and openness. We didn’t
edit and we didn’t tell Pete ‘don’t do this, don’t do that,’ ”
said Highland’s chief operating officer, Bill Manns.
Changing the system
Manns said the film highlights the need for change in the larger
health system, particularly to make sure patients have access to
primary or urgent care and not just the emergency room.
Nicks, fresh off a trip to the Ashland (Ore.) Independent Film
Festival, where the film won a special jury mention for
feature-length documentary, said he plans to continue the film’s
work with an interactive effort that will allow more patients to
tell their stories.
The storytelling project could involve a kiosk or mobile devices
in the emergency waiting room.
“We’re looking for something that could scale out and serve as a
tool for public hospitals to get deeper insight into the stories
of their patients,” he said.
There will be no shortage of patients waiting.
“The hospital can work to clear out the waiting room,” Nicks
said, “but at the end of the day, the sun comes up, the bus comes
and that waiting room is going to fill up again.”
Seeing the film
“The Waiting Room” will be screened three times at the San
Francisco International Film Festival between Saturday and May 1.
Screening times can be found at links.sfgate.com/ZLJI.
— To learn more about the film and the storytelling project: