The Waiting Room
A day in the life of a public hospital's ER waiting room captures what it means for millions of Americans to live without health insurance.
Directed by Peter Nicks
Produced by Linda Davis, Peter Nicks, William B. Hirsch
Cinematography: Peter Nicks
Editor: Lawrence Lerew
Original Score: William Ryan Fritch
Additional Music: B. Quincy Griffin
Co-Producer: Lawrence Lerew
Executive Producers: William B. Hirsch, Scott Verges
Executive Producer for ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer
A co-production of Open'hood, Inc. and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with money provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), in association with Peer Review Films
Note: There are two versions of this program on the same DVD: 82-minutes and 62-minutes.
"A source of both inspiration and hope. The system may be broken, but the people are not."
Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
The Waiting Room is a character-driven documentary film that uses extraordinary access to go behind the doors of an American public hospital struggling to care for a community of largely uninsured patients. The film - using a blend of cinema verité and characters' voiceover - offers a raw, intimate, and even uplifting look at how patients, staff and caregivers each cope with disease, bureaucracy and hard choices.
The ER waiting room serves as the grounding point for the film, capturing in vivid detail what it means for millions of Americans to live without health insurance. We witness the minute-by-minute Sisyphean struggle that plagues public hospitals, where emergency rooms have to field the overwhelming health care needs of the inner city. Young victims of gun violence take their turn alongside artists and small business owners who lack insurance. The film weaves the stories of several patients - as well as the hospital staff charged with caring for them - as they cope with the complexity of the nation's public health care system, while weathering the storm of a national recession.
The Waiting Room lays bare the struggle and determination of both a community and an institution coping with limited resources and no road map for navigating a health care landscape marked by historic economic and political dysfunction. It is a film about one hospital, its multifaceted community, and how our common vulnerability to illness binds us together as humans.
Grade Level: 10 -12, College, Adults
US Release Date: 2013
Copyright Date: 2012
DVD ISBN: 1-93777-249-7
"An excellent, riveting documentary, revealing the raw compassion of health care providers trying their best to deliver care in a broken safety-net system. The Waiting Room offers a glimpse into the struggles of patients who are terrified about not only the crisis that brought them into the emergency department, but how they are going to pay for the care once they leave."
Dr. Karoline Mortensen, Assistant Professor of Health Services Administration, University of Maryland
"Public hospital emergency departments are the `safety net' of a fragmented and dysfunctional U.S. health care system. The Waiting Room depicts the experiences of people with severe and chronic illnesses who have no other options for care, and of the health care providers who are overwhelmed by the volume and acuity of patients seeking help. This film may inform health policy debates by illustrating the human aspects of seeking safety-net care."
Dr. Benjamin Sun, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Oregon Health and Science University
"The Waiting Room shows the human side of the failings of the US health care system, and the heroic efforts of health professionals trying to patch together solutions to human sufferings attributed to a dysfunctional health care system. This is a compelling case for health reform."
Dr. Michael R. Cousineau, Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Preventive Medicine, Director of the Center for Community Health Studies, University of Southern California
"The Waiting Room compellingly weaves together stories of caregivers and clients to tell a larger story of healthcare crisis. Useful for students, medical staff, caregivers, and policymakers, it is also a well-told tale and one of the most accomplished examples of cinema verite filmmaking in recent history."
Patricia Aufderheide, Center for Social Media, American University
"Powerfully real. A striking reality check of what it means to have a fragmented health care. The Waiting Room provides a glimpse into a world where it is hard to be a good health professional in a dysfunctional system, no matter how much you care."
Dr. David Rakel, Founder and Director, Integrative Medicine Program, Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin
"Should be mandatory for patients, providers (i.e., hospital administrators and insurers, as well as doctors, nurses and staff) and students. This last I say as one who has taught sociology of medicine to pre-med students, nursing students and those studying physical therapy and occupational therapy, as well as integrating 'med soc' units into introductory courses. Indeed, there seems to be an absence of discussion of emergency room and urgent care in most sociology of health and medicine books and monographs. That makes this documentary, which depicts both the overwhelmed exhaustion of compassionate medical staff and the frustration of an underserved and impoverished patient population, a particularly good choice of film to view and invites student discussion."
Demetra Pappas, Saint Francis College, Visual Studies
"The Waiting Room does not try to convince us of anything. It is literally 'a day in the life,' of a life that is constructed around class, race, gender, and institutions that are stressed to their limits. It is also a story of professionals of almost unimaginable strength and patience...One more time: The Waiting Room is neither for nor against the current American medical system, let alone 'Obamacare.' But people who think that America has the world's best medical system (if there are any) must watch the film and decide if this is any way for a great country to minister to its own citizens in need. Level/Use: Suitable for high school classes and college courses in cultural anthropology, medical anthropology, and American studies, as well as for general audiences."
Jack David Eller, Anthropology Review Database
"Unique and timely...A dynamic look at a typical day and night at a large Oakland public hospital emergency waiting room used regularly by uninsured patients of all ages and generations, races, and cultures served by overburdened male and female health professionals and assistants...This is very highly recommended for young adult and older general audience and college students."
Ellen Paterson, SUNY, Science Books and Films
"Harrowing...[An] up-close and personal glimpse of just how dysfunctional the current U.S. health care system is...Vividly unforgettable...Highly recommended."
The Midwest Book Review
"Highly Recommended...Unlike other recent documentaries that have attempted to expose or analyze particular problems in our dysfunctional US healthcare system, this film does not have a focused polemical political agenda or message. Instead it attempts to simply confront the viewer with the kinds of human suffering that a better organized and more equitable system might avoid...The film will be most suitable for college or university students or well-educated adults concerned about the future of our healthcare system."
Gary D. Byrd, University at Buffalo - SUNY, Educational Media Reviews Online
"Anyone who has ever wound up in the emergency room of an urban hospital will surely recognize the human drama on display...Highly recommended."
"Of all the memorable films on offer at Silverdocs, the most haunting by far is The Waiting Room...Engrossing...As The Waiting Room makes clear...the lines between wealth and poverty keep shifting, virtually before our eyes."
Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post
"Introduces you to some remarkable characters and also makes some terrifying points about the use of emergency care as a substitute for - or a consequence of the lack of - proper primary care."
Linda Holmes, National Public Radio
"Peter Nicks had extraordinary access to the people in and around the waiting room of a public hospital in Oakland. But what makes this a classic, and a work of art and not journalism, is his taste, his poetic touches, and his talent for understatement."
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
"The Waiting Room is, by virtue of the experiences it documents, an irrefutable argument for the necessity of universal health care, here and now. The movie depicts real human beings, every one of them deserving better than what they get...In a year of exceptionally strong documentaries, The Waiting Room is one of the most urgent and effective."
Amy Taubin, Artforum International Magazine
"As nail-biting as any Hollywood thriller...riveting...Shows us why our country's health care system is very much in tatters."
Tribeca Film Institute
"A rare fly-on-the-wall look inside an overwhelmed and at times overwhelming system and its impact on patients and staff."
Jeffrey Brown, PBS News Hour
"Cutting across race, culture, and class, the film inhabits a remarkably broad cross-section of American urban life...The Waiting Room doesn't simply shed light on a broken healthcare system; like the best dramas, it humbly illuminates the human condition without narration or agenda. When strings swell up for the first time in the film's final moments, it's a catharsis that's well-earned."
Ryan Little, Washington City Paper
"A rock-solid verite docu...Its clear-eyed, well-crafted observation makes it plain Americans deserve a better system than this."
Dennis Harvey, Variety
"Astounding and moving...The cinema verite realism hits home, remaining personal while hinting at broad structural deficiencies (and strengths, by the way) in the nation's health care system. This movie will stay with you."
G. Allen Johnson, SF Gate
"The Waiting Room does two wonderful things...It takes a tedious situation and fills it with human emotion and real heart...The second, and perhaps most wonderful detail of the film, is the way it leaves the audience with a measure of hope...The hope comes from the people who continue to be there for us when we need them most. People who come back day after day with a positive attitude, and work tirelessly to help us."
Ryan McNeil, The Matinee
"When you see The Waiting Room, you are made aware that rationing is already at work, whether the illness is cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, drunkenness, or kidney disease...This is documentary as distilled observation. It's also as strong an argument for universal health care that I've seen in years."
David D'Arcy, Indiewire
"The film's intimate perspective, that of people who have nowhere else to go, brings a seemingly intractable political problem to the social level, rendering it a human problem."
Elien Becque, HealthCetera blog, Center for Health Media and Policy at Hunter College
"Everyone would be able to relate to this movie. Not everyone will relate to having no healthcare coverage, but everyone can understand what it is like to feel powerless for a child's health, or fearful for one's own life. This movie reaches the core of the human experience: life and death."
Brooke Shunatona, Vox Magazine, The Missourian
2 versions on same DVD: 82-minute Theatrical Version and 62-minute Classroom Version, with option to play a bleeped audio track. Plus 7 brief case studies from The Waiting Room Storytelling Project focusing on individual patients. Also SDH captions for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and scene selection.
The film's website
Awards and Festivals
Shortlist Best Documentary, Academy Awards®
Best Documentaries of the Year Selection, Video Librarian
Best Documentary, San Francisco Film Critics Circle
Audience Award, Golden Gate Award & Best Bay Area Documentary, San Francisco International Film Festival
Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
Special Jury Mention, AFI/Discovery Channel, Silverdocs
Truer Than Fiction Award & Nominee for Best Documentary, Independent Spirit Awards
Best Documentary Nominee, Gotham Independent Film Awards
Special Jury Mention, Ashland Independent Film Festival
Best Debut Feature Nominee, Cinema Eye Honors
Best Documentary, Camden International Film Festival
Best Bay Area Documentary, SF Weekly
HotDocs, Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
True/False Film Fest
Science Books & Films Best of 2013
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... more Reviews
"[A] well-done depiction of why our health care system is so expensive and still produces lousy outcomes."
Bob Geary, Independent Weekly
"By turning his lens on the faces of the frustrated potential patients and the harried doctors and nurses who do their best with the resources they have, Nicks is able to make a simple, graceful point that so many political pundits and politicians have been arguing over for years: the healthcare system in the US is broken and many, many citizens are paying the price, sometimes with their lives."
Kristal Cooper, Toronto Film Scene
"The Waiting Room underscores with tender humanity one of the more expensive failures of our swiss-cheese health-care system: ERs have replaced preventive-care, chronic- care and primary-care physicians as the first (and only) stop for medical attention for too many Americans."
Lisa Kennedy, The Denver Post
"An engrossing documentary...A cautionary tale about the risk of allowing profit to take precedence over human suffering."
Bruce DeMara, Toronto Star
"The film is a real reveal about America's great health divide: the haves and have nots."
Jennifer Merin, About.com
"The cross section of life that drifts in and out is specific to the Bay Area's utopia in one sense - every race you can imagine seeking help and providing it...But that diversity is an indication of how, ideally, the so-called social safety net catches us all...Nicks isn't lobbying. He's storytelling. The aggregation of those stories becomes its own editorial."
Wesley Morris, Boston Globe
"For hard-edged documentary snap with the all-important local angle, it would be hard to beat this film...Completely absorbing...Recommended."
Kelly Vance, East Bay Express
"A highly insightful experience, one that's simple and powerful...Tap[s] into the heart and soul of what's so critically at stake."
Randy Myers, San Jose Mercury News
"Weav[es] expertly selected and edited stories of patients and staff into a representative fabric of urban health issues...[An] exemplary specimen of highly effective cinema vérité."
Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
"It's a small-scale story that nevertheless speaks volumes about the larger problems facing American healthcare...Nicks effectively moves the ongoing debate over America's healthcare system out of the realm of budgets and taxes and instead asks viewers to consider the men and women whose lives would be improved by reform."
Ethan Alter, Film Journal International
"Peter Nicks puts faces, names, and heartbreakingly relatable stories to a social problem that can all too often feel abstract and academic. His film isn't just a timely and compelling look into how our health-care system consistently, methodically fails the poor: It's a tribute of the resilience and dignity of the human spirit without being sappy or sentimental."
Nathan Rabin, AV Club
"It's the reality of recession America, the reality of a nation that spends more per capita on healthcare than any other major democracy and gets worse results. Still, in a peculiar way The Waiting Room is a source of both inspiration and hope. The system may be broken, but the people are not."
Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
"Scrupulously realistic and ultimately optimistic...Complex and ambitious...[The film] homes in on just how emergency rooms function as primary care practitioners for the vast majority of our country's uninsured."
Elise Nakhnikian, Slant Magazine
"Nicks hasn't set out to decry a faulty and dehumanizing health care system. He'd rather just see how a safety net hospital cares for its unfortunate abundance of mostly uninsured patients. He has the presence of mind to reveal how humanizing the place actually is."
Jonathan Kiefer, The Village Voice
"The sensitivity is glorious...The hospital is full of amazing people, but the system seems impossible...This doc gives you real hell and heroism in under 90-minutes."
Sara Maria Vizcarrondo, Boxoffice